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Davidsen Parents Gather to Address School Image and Challenges

If you believe some social media posts and community gossip, Davidsen Middle School has a problem with school fights.

A March 7 special meeting between over 60 Davidsen parents and Principal Brent McBrien and Area 2 Superintendent Marcus Murillo tackled this notion – and others – with McBrien encouraging parents to challenge such incorrect community perceptions of the school.

The session, organized by the PTSA, focused on addressing the schools’ technology needs, behavioral issues, test scores, boundaries and maintenance/physical plant issues.

The meeting was sparked by PTSA Board Member Brandy Ludlum, a sixth grade parent, who was concerned about ideas that emerged from a PTSA meeting she missed about how to spend available funds. “They talked about great things like bike rack covers and a skateboard apparatus and it got me thinking that there were far more important things for us to spend our money on.”

“I had also heard earlier this year about our test scores and its relation to our non-English speaking children. I just think there is so much more we can do,” she said. “We love Davidsen and we love everything about it but we have some concerns.”

Ludlum initially called School Board Member Susan Valdes, who agreed to meet with parents on April 13. Ludlum also emailed Area 2 Superintendent Marcus Murillo. “He called me within 20 seconds of sending him the email,” Ludlum said. “He said, ‘Your concerns are my concerns and let’s get to work right now and not wait for April.’”

Held in the school’s media center, the session was opened by Davidsen PTSA President Tracy Urso, who alluded to parents’ concerns about a perceived rise in fights at the year’s start. Chalking these up to the growing pains of a boundary change that went into effect at the beginning of the year, Urso added that things had settled down.

McBrien added that fights occur in every middle school, even Walker Middle Magnet, where his child currently attends. He encouraged Davidsen parents to combat inaccurate social media negativity about Davidsen. “The school is really a great school,” said McBrien. “Do we have some issues? Of course, it’s middle school.”

Of Davidsen’s current 1,110 kids, McBrien said, 987, or 89 percent, have never had a disciplinary referral in middle school and 800 of the kids (72 percent) had straight A’s in behavior last quarter.

One of the school’s current challenges, he stated, is helping the increasing number of kids Davidsen serves from the Children’s Home. “This has been a very challenging year,” McBrien stated, adding that while they usually had nine students from the home, this year the total was over 30. The Children’s Home houses and assists kids who have been abused or abandoned by parents and guardians.

He emphasized, however, Davidsen was up for the challenge and that each child deserved a great education.

Citing recent accomplishments by Davidsen math teams and music ensembles, McBrien also touted Davidsen teachers as unmatched in quality and capable of handing all challenges. One, he stated, was the school’s poverty rate, just above 60 percent. This year, to ease overcrowding at Farnell, Davidsen brought in poor neighborhoods along Hillsborough Avenue that used to attend the school.

While Davidsen has traditionally received an A grade from the state, last year the school’s grade fell to a B. Broaching the topic, Davidsen parent Tim Pivnichny pointed out that nearby Farnell and Martinez are rated a 10 on local school ratings sites while Webb in Town N Country garners a 4 ad Davidsen has a rating of 7. Pivnichny asked McBrien the cause.

McBrien said it was largely the result of the school’s growing number of ELL students, who lack English fluency. Davidsen only had around 30 non-English speakers when he took the helm at Davidsen eight years ago, McBrien stated. That number jumped to 135 kids this year, a demographic shift caused, he said, by new construction. “There’s a shift in apartment complexes and condos.”

Once ELL students have lived in the country for a year, their scores on the all-English Florida State Assessments – tests that determine school grades – count toward the school grade. “We’re moving in the right direction,” McBrien stated, however.

When asked how parents could help, McBrien stated, “Get involved politically.” He encouraged parents to ask elected representatives to create fairer ways to gauge a school’s performance.

McBrien further acknowledged Davidsen’s community perception problem, one he’s faced since he began at the school eight years ago.

Walker, the IB magnet school has drawn quite a few families away from Davidsen, despite, he said, offering no different academic classes. “People ask what the difference between Davidsen and Walker is and I say, ‘It’s 4.8 miles.’”

“The image of Davidsen Middle School is one of the biggest headaches we face,” acknowledged Murillo. “We want everyone to know Davidsen is a great place.”

Murillo stated the meeting was to address parents’ concerns. The two acknowledged, however, that while Davidsen had great needs because of its higher percentage of needy families, funds were limited because Davidsen falls short of Title I status. That status would make more federal dollars available for things like technology. “As for technology, we’re just beating the bushes wherever we can,” said McBrien.

Demographic projections, he added, suggest that school won’t reach Title I status. When PTSA Board member Laura Kohler asked how the board could help, McBrien stated he was currently conducting a needs assessment among Davidsen teachers to pinpoint technology needed in classrooms.

“What’s valuable is all of you,” Murrillo said, gesturing to assembled parents.

“What you’re saying is parents need to step up,” Kohler observed.

Murillo stated that what made Davidsen unique compared to true Title I schools was its strong level of parental involvement, which he credited for pushing the issues that led to the meeting.

One parent stated that one of school’s challenges was convincing Westchase families to send their students to Davidsen. Murillo responded, “Eighty-five percent of kids that are supposed to come to Davidsen come to Davidsen. Fifteen percent do not.”

“Inside Westchase?” Kohler asked, cautioning that the statistic was drawn from all of Davidsen’s attendance zone and not just Westchase.

“We have about 100 kids who go to Walker,” acknowledged McBrien.

Davidsen parent Donna Winslow pointed out that 10 percent of Davidsen’s students were gifted students, above state averages for schools.

WOW Publisher Chris Barrett, however, pressed Murillo and McBrien on issues related to school boundaries and its impact on school grades. “I’m going to poke the elephant in the room,” he stated. Barrett alluded to the most recent boundary change, which took Farnell’s poorest neighborhoods out of that overcrowded school, and sent them to Davidsen. “The district is already asking Davidsen to do the heavy lifting in this part of the county to help out Webb,” said Barrett, who suggested the neighborhoods were switched from Farnell, already one of the county’s wealthiest schools, to Davidsen because it was politically expedient and would cause the least outcry. He added the shift didn’t help alleviate Davidsen’s burden and could impact the school’s FSA performance. “What was lacking was equitability,” Barrett said, triggering parents’ applause.

McBrien, however, emphasized that Davidsen’s teachers were up to the challenge.
“We have a school here we can completely improve as a team,” Murrillo added. “You may hear about an attraction program at Davidsen Middle School in as little as a few weeks,” he said.

Murillo stated that they were working on bringing a unique program to Davidsen to convince more Westchase families to send their kids to their zoned middle school. Murillo stated there was no similar program on the western side of Hillsborough County and it would be to help combat the incorrect impression of the school that some in the community have.

Prior to concluding, the two also briefly touched on recent repairs to air conditioning and suggestions on improving the appearance of the school grounds.

Davidsen’s PTSA has announced that the meeting with School Board Member Susan Valdes to discuss school improvement will be held on April 13 at the UTB Regional Library at a time to be announced.

By Chris Barrett, Publisher


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