Brandon High School heads in new direction to stay competitive

Ninth graders at Brandon High School gather for what appears to be clues to an escape room game.

In fact, teacher Sasha Fowler said they were reviewing what they had learned in her critical thinking skills class — concepts like logical fallacies, claims and reasoning, and problem solving.

Two students devised the exercise, building on the sense of ownership that has made Fowler’s class one of the most popular on campus.

“Problem solving makes me think more, so I have better ideas,” says 14-year-old Kennedy Weaver. “It will also help me with my other courses.”

On December 16th, students worked on a puzzle in Sasha Fowler's critical thinking class at Brandon High.
On December 16th, students worked on a puzzle in Sasha Fowler’s critical thinking class at Brandon High. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Fowler is one of two teachers in Brandon who this year launched the school’s Cambridge Advanced International Certification, or AICE, program, a rigorous curriculum that combines elements of the International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement courses.

Now with 169 students and poised to add to its curriculum in 2023-24, the plan marks Brandon High’s efforts to raise its profile in the community, many of whom have already found other options for their children.

“It really exposes them to a different type of curriculum,” said Jeremy Klein, now in his third year as principal.

But Klein and his team aren’t just concerned with academics.

They are also quick to become involved in the community school movement, forming partnerships with area businesses, charitable organizations and, in some cases, individual alumni who want to help meet the needs of their students.

“A surprising number of people showed up in ways I never thought possible,” said Lauren Leto, a former social studies teacher who is now a community school coordinator.

On December 16, Community Schools Coordinator Lauren Leto surveyed the Brandon High School food and supply pantry.
On December 16, Community Schools Coordinator Lauren Leto surveyed the Brandon High School food and supply pantry. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The two moves came at pivotal times for Brandon, a school known for its wrestling success.

Like other traditional schools, C-rated Brandon School is vying for market share in a competitive era.

Of the 28 high schools in Hillsborough, Brandon has the lowest “retention rate,” meaning the percentage of public school students assigned to the school based on their home address who stay there .

One-third of students choose the IB program at Strawberry Crest High School, the dual enrollment program at Armwood High School, the all-inclusive Tampa Bay Technical High School, or a variety of select and charter schools.

A new boundary plan now awaiting school board approval could fill some of the school’s vacancies. One of three options enrolls 471 students from Riverview High and 73 students from Bloomingdale. Another will transfer 201 students from Spoto High and 213 students from Riverview.

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No one can predict which option (if any) will be selected. And, with school choice still a factor, no one can say what Brandon’s population (now 1,566) will look like when the plan is formed.

Klein has previously worked with schools facing competitive challenges. He graduated from Leto High School in West Hillsboro and returned to his alma mater years later as an administrator. While Bloomingdale and Newsome High Schools are larger and newer than Brandon’s, Klein said he appreciates the benefits of a smaller, more intimate campus.

Upon arriving in Brandon, he said, “You can tell, you can feel that there’s a definite tradition here. There’s also an element of comfort, and the people who love the community. Even the people who work here. The building’s unwavering commitment is ultimately what I see.”

Erica Hartmann, 31, looks back on her student years at Brandon with mixed emotions. She was unhappy in those years and had nothing to do with the school. Something is wrong at home.

“I’m not a bad kid, and I’m not a good kid,” she said. “I just fly under the radar.”

She wished someone had reached out to her in those years.

Hartman, now the owner of a home-organizing business and mother of three, was part of a group that recently reactivated Brandon’s dormant PTSA.

She is working closely with Leto on the community school project. Everywhere they go, they talk about the many needs of the school—adult tutors, food, clothes, school supplies, and jobs, both for students and their parents.

“People often want to help, but they don’t know how,” Hartman said.

In a short time, they saw the response.

A financial services business donated boxes of granola bars for teachers to distribute to hungry students. Businesses allow them to place donation boxes near the entrance. A honey baked ham shop employs eight Brandon students and a part-time special education assistant.

Hartmann asked friends and neighbors to buy items from Amazon wish lists she posted on social media. She tells her clients that she’ll give her a discount on their next organizing service if they donate discarded clothing and household items to Brandon High School instead of other charities.

They found someone to fund a $350 program that teaches students coping skills. A local artist decorated a community school classroom for free. Staff and volunteers have been stocking shelves with clothes, school supplies and toiletries. They are creating a food bank.

A donation box for students has been packaged and can be placed at a local business partner to help the Brandon High School food and supply pantry.
A donation box for students has been packaged and can be placed at a local business partner to help the Brandon High School food and supply pantry. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Aware of the sensitivities of any charity, Leto involves students in unpacking donations and displaying them. She told them they could “go shopping” first, and sometimes they walked away with designer items. “I feel like it’s become the norm,” she said.

Klein and Leto knew there was no way to measure the intangible benefits of helping students feel safer and supported. But they intuitively think that the school is stronger as a result.

“The kids felt invested and the community started to reinvest in the school,” Leto said. “For too long, our children have been in survival mode. The question now is, how can we make it a place for our children to thrive?”

Academia is also moving in the right direction. Although Brandon failed to advance to the B grade this year, it added 33 points to the grade’s score.

“We’re going up,” Klein said.