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Commentary

Amid heartache, Hillsborough public schools' story continues

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 11:39 PM

Life is strange. Two weeks ago I was at a conference of school leaders in another city, and they were singing the praises of Hillsborough County and asking how we get so much done. I went to another national conference and, again, people throughout the nation know about the great things that are happening in our schools

I came home to unbearable tragedy — the loss of a child at one of our schools.

When I hear of such a tragedy — and fortunately, it is rare — my heart breaks for the child, the parents, the friends, the teachers. This one hit particularly hard because it happened here, in Hillsborough County. And when it happens, it is not very comforting to remember that tens of thousands of our children attend school every day and are safe and learning.

We must take time to mourn. We must take time to find out what happened and do everything we can to be sure it does not happen again. We must hold our children close — those in our families, those in our hearts, those in our care.

And then I think we should take a breath and remember that the children in this school district are blessed with caring, capable people who help them learn every day, who transport them thousands of miles safely, who inspire them to accomplish things they never thought they could. Our teachers work miracles every day, and people all over the nation are noticing.

Recently I had the privilege of sitting with New York Times columnist and author Thomas L. Friedman. His first words were, "Hillsborough, hmm? Bill Gates was telling me about the great work you are doing there. How do you do it?"

I told him about our teachers and teachers' union, PTA and other parents, community partners and our leadership. I told him I think our shared sense of purpose is a key.

We are in the midst of a new and challenging effort to support our teachers and to evaluate their work more accurately and fairly. Because of our track record of working collaboratively to improve student achievement, we in this district have these advantages: time to develop a careful program that includes supports for beginning teachers as well as experienced educators; detailed data that can be used for student success; time to get it right; and financial resources to develop key components.

We can already point to some successes, but this is very much a work in progress.

I think part of the reason for our success is that we are very self-critical and focus on what we need to fix. This is necessary for progress.

At the same time, we need to remember the good things we are doing. We need to remember the young man, often in trouble, who spent time in the band room. A wise, caring teacher helped him find himself in music, finish high school and go on to college. We need to remember the young woman who was homeless and is now finishing college, on track to attend law school. We need to remember our National Merit Scholars, National Achievement Scholars and National Hispanic Scholars who often attend colleges with significant scholarship assistance. We need to remember the graduates of our career and technical programs who get good jobs right here at home — jobs that can't be outsourced.

The contrast between hearing national acclaim and learning of tragedy at home was jarring, to say the least. But both remind us to keep things in perspective. I would never assert that all is right in our district, but I have no patience with those who say all is wrong.

The other day a woman told me she had taught in private schools for 24 years. She now has a grandchild in our Hillsborough County Public Schools. She had been concerned that the child would be bored, but she is thriving, challenged and supported to learn by some of our great teachers. Why, she wondered, do we not tell our story?

This is our story.


Candy Olson chairs the Hillsborough County School Board.

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