Florida’s official charter schools conference has convened in Daytona Beach. Charter school operators gathered here have singled out one of the state’s largest districts for improving relations.
Kristine Bennett is the principal of Brooks DeBartolo Collegiate High School in Hillsborough County. She said she has 17 years of experience working in charter schools in the new district. And she said Jeff Eakins, became the district’s superintendent two years ago, has been a breath of fresh air.
“It’s come a long way, and it really does have to do with the leadership at the top,” she said. Eakins has the same message on school choice, whether he’s talking to people in the district, its charter schools, or local private schools. “It’s about serving kids,” she said. “That is so refreshing in Hillsborough County, because I know it’s not like that everywhere.”
Little things can make a big difference. Jenna Hodgens, who heads Hillsborough’s charter authorizing office, said when Eakins became superintendent, he invited charter schools to district-wide principals’ meetings. Several charter leaders reached out to her for clarification. They thought district officials had a made a mistake. After she saw district and charter educators huddled together in one room, Hodgens said, she knew Eakins was serious about bringing all the district’s public school educators together.
“I texted him, like, OMG, you are so cool,” she said. “It’s so nice to have them all included.”
Hodgens has taken a leadership role with the Florida Association of Charter School Authorizers. She appeared alongside Lynn Norman-Teck of the Florida Charter School Alliance for a workshop on improving district-charter relations.
Norman-Teck said even in districts where political tensions run high, there are typically staff whose jobs include working with charters. While elected officials in Palm Beach County have been increasingly hostile, she said, Jim Pegg, charter schools director in that district, still helps schools with day-to-day issues. She suggested charter school leaders build relationships with people in similar positions.
Vickie Marble is a veteran charter school operator in Sarasota County. The district has been another model of positive relations. She said charter schools don’t necessarily want to participate in every district-wide meeting or initiative. But the want to have the opportunity. And they want to get along.
“You don’t have to agree, but it’s the civility with which you work together,” she said.