In response to community concerns about violence and increased law enforcement at Wharton High earlier this year, school administration and district officials held a series of five meetings — at Turner Bartels K-8 school, Hunter’s Green (HGE) and Heritage elementary schools and Van Buren and Benito middle schools — between April 4 and April 11.
Designed to be smaller, more intimate gatherings where parents could ask questions freely, the meetings were attended by what could hardly be called “crowd” — in fact, a fraction of the hundreds of parents who showed up back in February for a larger meeting held on campus at Wharton were at the five meetings combined.
The meetings were led by principal Brad Woods, who, in a strange twist, announced his resignation from Wharton after 10 years at the school the morning after the final meeting at Benito.
In addition to Woods, the school’s six assistant principals and district staff — including Area 3 superintendent Dr. Anna Brown, who oversees Wharton and all of the New Tampa-area Hillsborough County public schools, and former HGE principal Kristin Tonelli, who is now the Area 3 leadership coach — attended all five. New Tampa-area Hillsborough District 3 School Board member Cindy Stuart attended all but one.
At the New Tampa-area meetings, attendance varied.
Administrators outnumbered parents 7-4 at the Heritage meeting, by far the least attended. The meetings at Hunter’s Green and Benito had about 30 parents each; roughly 20 were at Turner Bartels.
Some parents in attendance did express concern about the low turnout.
“I’d love to see more parents here,” said Jennifer Brooks, a Wharton parent.
But, administrators say their goal was to connect with the parents who did show up, no matter how many there were.
Woods stressed at each meeting that school officials had heard from parents on issues like better communication and student support, and improving school pride, which could include things like beautification.
A request has been made to have Wharton painted, but the cost could be $225,000 and the School Board would have to approve funding for that project. A campus clean-up and beautification day will be held on Saturday, April 28.
Parents and community members are invited to attend, although details on time and exactly what improvements will be made were not available at our press time.
Woods explained at the first meeting that new soap dispensers were being ordered that could not be as easily removed from the walls. Apparently, some students would empty the dispensers so that it was difficult to keep them filled. At the last meeting at Benito, Woods announced that the new dispensers had been installed.
He also addressed the issue of the smell of marijuana coming from the 100 Hall bathrooms at two of the meetings. Woods reported that a teacher reported the smell to the office earlier last week, and when no one was found in the restroom at the time, administrators reviewed security video and searched students seen going into or coming out of the bathroom during that time.
One student who was found with marijuana was suspended and arrested.
While administrators insist problems at the school stem from both local students who attend Wharton from New Tampa’s 33647 zip code and those who are bused in from outside of it, Woods reported that one parent has met with School Board member Cindy Stuart to propose new boundaries for Wharton, beginning a long process that could potentially end in rezoning at some point in the future.
Parents seemed to be reassured that the violence that was prevalent on campus a few months ago had calmed down. So, questions turned to issues of safety.
“We have your prized possessions here,” Woods said, adding that at Wharton, the perimeter of the school is being examined, and changes have been made to keep the students safer, such as opening and closing gates as needed, rather than leaving a gate open all day.
“It’s comforting to hear they’re managing the fighting situation and bringing it down to a normal level,” said Dale Miller, whose two children attend Wharton.
Following the final meeting at Benito on April 11, Brooks echoed the sentiments of several parents who attended the meeting. “I think they’re moving in the right direction,” she says. “I don’t expect everything to be fixed overnight, but I want to be kept in the loop.”
She says her 10th-grade daughter loves Wharton and she has no hesitations about her eighth-grade daughter attending the school next year.
“My two questions for any school are always, will you be safe, and will you be challenged?,” said Brooks. “The answer at Wharton is yes (to both).”
Brooks’ friend Christine Bonatakis has a daughter in eighth grade who will attend Wharton next year. “We have lots of friends and neighbors who attend Wharton and they’re happy,” Bonatakis said. “I feel very comfortable with my decision.”