Here's the first piece - the Tampa Bay paper on one troubled school in the Hillsborough district that the paper claims was exacerbated by district busing and magnet school policies under Elia:
First she noticed the gates around the building, then the boys playing football shirtless at the bus stop. Kenyatta McClairen had a bad feeling about her 11-year-old son's new school.
Her instincts were right.
Before her son could make it to class on his first day, one boy grabbed his neck while the other tried to snatch his cubic zirconium earring. Afraid of his attackers, he just gave it to them, the police report said.
The robbery didn't happen in the high-crime East Tampa neighborhood where McClairen and her children lived. It happened inside a school 12 miles away in Brandon, a bedroom community with 3,000-square-foot homes and backyard pools.
McLane Middle School, by some measures the most troubled school in Hillsborough County, has battled waves of violence and crime for the better part of a decade.
Rampant suspensions have cut down on class time, especially for McLane's black students, who test well below black children at other middle schools. Teacher ratings are unusually low, suggesting children who need the most help are being bused to the place least able to provide it. And while behavior has improved under an energetic new principal, large-scale busing from Tampa's poorest neighborhoods — a root cause of the disorder — remains in effect.
What happened at McLane is partly a function of the way society's problems spill into big, urban school systems. But a closer look reveals Hillsborough school leaders helped create McLane's problems years ago, then let them fester.
As part of a well-intended move to foster racial integration, officials allowed magnet schools to claim most of the middle school seats in East Tampa and import their students from other areas. The policy pushed large concentrations of poor East Tampa students into a faraway school that had no connection to their neighborhood and a staff weakened by too many under-performing teachers.
That led to what experts say was an entirely foreseeable reign of chaos that the district let stand in the face of alarming headlines and statistics. Over the last decade — culminating with an especially troubling 2013-14 academic year — thousands of 11-, 12- and 13-year-old kids found themselves in a middle school that failed them.
Last year, records show:
• An average of one student a week left McLane in handcuffs.
• Nearly 14 percent of teachers were rated "unsatisfactory," nearly nine times the district average and more in number, 9, than any other public school in Florida.
• McLane's state test scores lagged behind the district average for middle schools. And its black students, who comprise slightly more than half the school, performed 10 to 20 percentage points worse than their black peers across the county.
• McLane students were three times more likely than those at other Hillsborough middle schools to receive out-of-school suspensions and six times more likely to be referred for expulsion or change in placement, with many problems occurring on long bus rides.
• McLane led the county with 35 expulsion cases, eclipsing schools twice its size. The school record: 51 in 2007. Black students were most affected, with far more cases in the last three years than at any other middle school.
Acting superintendent Jeff Eakins, who lives in Brandon, said he doubts McLane was as constantly chaotic as some describe. But he acknowledged "pockets of occurrences, sometimes on a daily basis" that created stress for students and teachers.
Others who experienced it describe the school differently.
"It was kind of a shock to the senses," said Hillsborough County Sheriff's Deputy Chad Keen, who became McLane's resource officer in early 2014. "I came in thinking, 'How bad can this be? I was in middle school once.' I wasn't here on campus but 30 minutes and there was already a huge fight breaking out in the main office."
Reading teacher Margery Singleton said she left abruptly in late 2013 after bullies threatened a seventh-grader in her class. She tried to lock them out, but another student let them in. She recalls seeing her student tremble and knowing his tormenters would be waiting for him later.
"I think about McLane a lot. It's something that is burned into my psyche," Singleton said.
"I couldn't take it any more. I needed to separate myself. I've never seen anything like it."
"School choice" policies supported by MaryEllen Elia have been blamed for the problems:
At community meetings in Hillsborough and nationwide, civil rights activists increasingly invoke the phrase "school-to-prison pipeline." The theory holds that schools discipline black students more frequently and harshly through zero-tolerance policies and racial bias, setting them on a path toward the criminal justice system.
A complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights alleges Hillsborough not only over-disciplines black students, but gives them an inferior education.
At D-rated McLane, a number of grim statistics support those allegations. Nearly 90 percent of last year's expulsion cases involved black students, who make up 52 percent of the school.
Sixteen percent of McLane's black eighth graders were reading at grade level, compared with 62 percent of its white eighth graders. Districtwide, 35 percent of black eighth graders and 68 percent of white eighth graders read at grade level.
Officials who created the McLane situation, and experts outside the district, say what happened there did not arise from discrimination. Rather, they say, students were collateral damage in a war of competing interests as the district embraced magnet schools decades ago.
Starting in the 1990's, East Tampa's middle schools — Young, Franklin, Ferrell, Orange Grove and Williams — became specialty schools offering curricula in science and technology, criminal justice and the performing arts. Later, Ferrell and Franklin became single-gender schools.
The middle magnet schools choose their students through a lottery system that is weighted based on zip code, income and other factors designed to create a diverse student body. But, as with the choice program, families must apply. If they do not, or if they apply and do not get in, the children are put on a bus to McLane or another school.
The choice program, rolled out in 2004, was intended to maintain the diversity court-ordered busing had created. The idea was that urban families would send their children to suburban schools in hopes of giving them the best education.
But officials were way off in predicting how many would take part. "Many parents, because of where they live and where they work, even if it's a failing school, their kids are going to go there," said Bill Person, then-director of pupil administrative services.
Person, now retired, said he tried to warn his bosses that thousands of middle school students needed seats. But they were slow to respond. And when they tried to convert some magnets to neighborhood schools, they met with resistance from parents who didn't want to move their kids.
"We were not willing to make the hard decisions to reclaim seats in the inner city," he said.
The district made room for some East Tampa middle school students by converting James and B.T. Washington to K-8 schools. But both were overrun by students. Books, computers and bathrooms were scarce. Expulsion cases were in the double digits. That plan was short-lived.
There was talk of building a new middle school near Ybor City. But that has yet to happen.
When told what became of McLane, Person said: "We always thought this was temporary. We never thought it would still be going on after 10 years."
Elia was head of the district for 10 years.
She was fired by the school board in January of this year.
The federal investigation into complaints of racial discrimination in her former school district continues.
McLane is said to be improving under a new principal.
MaryEllen Elia has just been appointed NYSED commissioner and will take over the position in July.