May 10, 2023 - News

West Tampa's Just Elementary to close despite community pushback

Illustration of a chalkboard with "Sorry We're Closed" written in chalk.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Hillsborough County School Board gave final approval to a plan Tuesday that would shutter West Tampa's Just Elementary School, where nearly 83% of students are Black.

Why it matters: Parents, educators and community leaders pleaded with the board to reconsider the decision, warning that the district's move to close the elementary school will unnecessarily disrupt students' lives.

  • The school is underperforming and understaffed, a district spokesperson told Axios.
  • Enrollment is also dwindling, in part because of Florida's school choice program, which makes it financially easier for parents to send their children to private, charter and magnet schools.

Between the lines: Speakers at Tuesday's meeting expressed skepticism about the school board's decision to close Just, noting that the building is on valuable land often targeted for residential and commercial development.

  • Eight years ago, the Tampa Housing Authority and the City of Tampa shared development plans — first reported by 10 Tampa Bay — that reenvisioned the area near the Hillsborough River without Just.
  • As part of the plans, a public housing project, North Boulevard Homes, was demolished, relocating about 2,000 residents from the area, some of whom sent their kids to Just.
  • The area is still under development.

What they're saying: "Closures like these are not coincidental," Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman, a University of South Florida sociology professor, said at the board meeting Tuesday. "You erased them from the map as a calculated decision with minimal consultation from the community."

  • "We never had a meeting in West Tampa," school board member Henry "Shake" Washington, who voted against closing Just, said. "It's like someone closing your house without meeting with you."

The other side: In 2022, Just was rated an F school, according to Florida Department of Education data. Last year, 11% of the students were proficient in literacy, and 22% were proficient in math.

  • "Moving the students to other schools will provide a better educational opportunity for them," a district spokesperson said. "Both schools they would be reassigned to are graded a C."

Yes, but: Just was a C school before the pandemic.

What we're watching: Just students will be reassigned to Booker T. Washington Elementary or Tampa Bay Boulevard Elementary. But parents will be given a choice to send their children to nearby magnet schools.

  • Superintendent Addison Davis is recommending that Just closes for at least a year but is eventually repurposed into a Montessori school, with an initial focus on early childhood education, the district spokesperson said.
  • The district said it intends to keep Just's building and name, if it were to reopen the school.

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