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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Education commissioner Pam Stewart offers Florida schools two days for Irma

Florida school districts that closed before, during and after Hurricane Irma received some slight relief Tuesday from the state Department of Education.

Commissioner Pam Stewart advised superintendents that she would waive two days from the state requirement that districts hold 180 days of classes.

Read her full letter for more details.

Most districts, however, used several more days than two. Pasco schools took off six, while Hernando, Pinellas and Hillsborough took seven.

Some districts in South Florida missed even more.

If they can’t work out their schedules with the two-day waiver, Stewart wrote, the districts would have to make a formal request to her department by Oct. 16. And they’d have to meet some stringent requirements, as set forth in state rule.

To gain additional approved time off, she explained, the districts would first have to make up the time by using all but three teacher planning days over the course of the school year. They also would have to lose any school holidays that aren’t authorized national or state holidays.

Around the Tampa Bay area, that could mean the shortening of the Thanksgiving break, which has become a week for most districts. …

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Heart Association recognizes Jeff Eakins

Hillsborough County Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Eakins was named the national Administrator of the Year, by the American Heart Association on Tuesday.

The organization recognized Eakins and the Hillsborough district for including student health in the strategic plan, and approving hands-only CPR in 2015 as a graduation requirement.

According to the district, the award also reflects;

96,768 students and families received Heart Healthy messages that include lifesaving information on heart attack and stroke warning signs

$327,123 was raised for the fight against heart attack and stroke, a 15% increase over the prior year.

6,576 elementary students took the Heart Healthy Challenge: exercising for 60 minutes a day and choosing Heart Healthy foods and drinks


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Florida Supreme Court tosses Palm Beach case on charter school approvals

With a simple two-sentence memo, the Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld the state Board of Education's power to overturn school board denials of charter school applications.

The court declined to accept juridsiction over the Palm Beach County School Board's case, which challenged the state's authority, and instead left intact the January ruling of the Fourth District Court of Appeal that affirmed the state's role.

In that January decision, the appellate court found the charter school application appeals law to be constitutional, contrary to the Palm Beach district's arguments. The School Board had denied an applicant, explaining that it did not offer innovative techniques and it already had one failing school in the district.

The applicant asked the state to overturn the school board's decision, and the State Board did so. The district contended that the state overstepped its bounds by acting in a realm constitutionally assigned to school boards. …

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USF boasts a diverse, record-breaking class of new students

Student Nick Russin talks to incoming students during a tour of the Marshall Student Center on USF’s Tampa campus.


Student Nick Russin talks to incoming students during a tour of the Marshall Student Center on USF’s Tampa campus.

TAMPA – Another year, another record-breaking freshman class for the University of South Florida.

Its incoming students boast the strongest academics and most diversity in school history, officials said Tuesday.

It's also the biggest group of students the USF System has ever seen, numbering more than 50,000 enrollments between the main campus in Tampa and regional institutions USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee.

In Tampa, the average high school GPA for incoming students has risen to 4.12 (last year, first-time-in-college students averaged 4.08). More than 50 percent of incoming students graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class. 

Paul Dosal, vice president for student affairs and student success, said in a statement that USF has relied on careful planning of its enrollments.

“As an institution, we value diversity and promote a teaching and learning environment that reflects the state, national, and global markets in which our students will one day compete,” he said. …

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A reorganization in Hillsborough will place safety under operations

Staff at the Hillsborough County School District's safety office will work in the operations department, subject to a vote at this afternoon's School Board meeting.

Significant? Maybe, maybe not.

An argument can be made that safety, which is now a separate department and is listed on the website under Human Resources, serves as a check on the work of other departments.

But that structure also can create a disconnect. It became difficult, for example, to keep track of hazardous walking situations at bus stops, and that's one reason why a lot of courtesy bus stops existed long after conditions no longer justified them.

Superintendent Jeff Eakins said Monday that he thinks it makes more sense to house the safety office under the operations department, which is headed up by Chief Operations Officer Chris Farkas.

"So much of our operations depend on codes and other kinds of stability requirements," Eakins said. "It needs to be a solution-driven space, and safety needs to be a voice at the table."

The move, part of a larger reorganization that will also save the district an estimated $26,000, comes as officials wait to learn the cause of a fire on Sept. 12 that ravaged Lee Elementary School. …

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How are Florida school boards able to hold budget hearings tonight?

Several Florida school boards, including Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, have set their final budget public hearings and votes for after 5 p.m. Tuesday.

They had been scheduled to act on Sept. 12. Hurricane Irma interfered.

The quick turnaround did not allow school districts to provide what generally might be considered adequate public notice. How can that happen?

In this case, Gov. Rick Scott anticipated the probable need to alter the plans, and made provisions for it in his Sept. 4 executive order regarding Irma. Scott granted the Department of Revenue executive director the authority to waive the timing requirements of state law with regard to the setting of non ad valorem tax rates.

The waiver, issued Sept. 8, allowed districts to complete their budgets after the emergency passed. It included some lesser notification requirements, and called for the government entities to hold the hearings at a time and place that ensures public access, "to the extent practicable."

It expires after 30 days.

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Florida education news: Free lunch, school routines, spending cuts and more

Scott Keeler | Times

FREE LUNCH: Hurricane Irma caused many families to go without income for a week. Many also lost power, and along with it the food in their refrigerators and freezers. Making matters worse, replacing it isn't so easy, as grocery stores have limited supplies. Hoping to ease the burden, the state has asked for and received permission for 48 counties including those in the Tampa Bay region to provide free meals to all students through October 20. If families will continue to need assistance after that date, they will have to apply.

BACK TO SCHOOL: Returning to routine was a key as children across the state headed back to classes after more than a week away because of Irma. Some stories from Lee Elementary in Hillsborough and Odessa Elementary in Pasco. • The state Department of Education has revised its fall testing schedule after the storm. • More from the Sun-Sentinel, Associated Press, Naples Daily News, Daytona Beach News-Journal 

BUDGETS: The Hillsborough County School Board prepares to make spending cuts to end its reliance on reserves, at a time when it doesn't know how much hurricane-related costs will total. …

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USF St. Petersburg leader responds to criticism of hurricane decisions

Former USFSP regional chancellor Sophia Wisniewska in 2013


Former USFSP regional chancellor Sophia Wisniewska in 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — The former leader of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, who resigned Monday amid internal criticism of her handling of Hurricane Irma, is defending her decisions during the storm.

"I strongly reject any question of my leadership during Irma and my leadership during my tenure at USFSP," former regional chancellor Sophia Wisniewska wrote in a text message to a Tampa Bay Times reporter Monday night. "Certainly, I did nothing to warrant firing for cause. However, I do realize that President Genshaft has the right to choose another Chancellor, and she did."

Wisniewska rejected the university's characterization of her decision-making, referring to "a very significant difference of opinion on how events unfolded."

READ: Sophia Wisniewska's letter to USF in response to dismissal 

She said she leaves USFSP proud of her ties to the community, as well as her work developing new programs, fundraising, boosting rankings and beautifying the waterfront campus.

"I resigned this evening without hard feelings and with optimism for the future," she wrote. "My only regret is that I was unable to achieve all of our goals for USFSP."

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More chances to weigh in on bell times

In all the excitement surrounding Hurricane Irma, the Hillsborough County School District was derailed in some of its efforts to get public input about next year's arrival and dismissal times.

As a result, two more public meetings have been scheduled; Thursday, September 21, 6:00-7:30 p.m., at the Riverview High School cafeteria, 11311 Boyette Rd.; and Tuesday, September 26, 6:00-7:30 p.m., Jefferson High School media center, 4401 Cypress St., Tampa.

The deadline to complete a survey that was sent to parents and employees has been extended through Sunday, Oct. 1. Nearly 30,000 people have offered their opinions already.

The district says it's changing the schedules because under last year's system, 12,000 students were late to school every day.

The School Board plans to vote on next year's schedule on Oct. 17.

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Time to get 'back to routine' as much as possible in Florida schools

Teacher Scott Ortolano writes a brief welcome back message to his students, who missed six class days because of Hurricane Irma.

Jeffrey S. Solochek

Teacher Scott Ortolano writes a brief welcome back message to his students, who missed six class days because of Hurricane Irma.

Principal Teresa Love greeted her Odessa Elementary staff back to work Monday with a smile and a cheerful "good morning," so everyone could get right into the business of the day.

Students would soon return after six class days away, and Love wanted to get her Pasco County school -- which days earlier had housed 950 Hurricane Irma evacuees and their 125 pets -- back to learning as soon as possible.

"All the teachers are going to have that initial few moments of time where they allow the kids to talk about things," she said, referring to the storm that threatened the region. "We've all had that time. The kids need that time as well. But not that much time. ... It's time to get back to routine."

If there was a single word that dominated discussion Monday, it was "routine." Teachers used it a dozen times if they used it once, noting how children thrive better when things go according to plan.

It became fifth grade teacher Scott Ortolano's watchword as he made his last minute lesson preparations with colleague Jennifer James. They discussed how to review the information about decimals their students had learned before the break, and how to transition into new materials. …

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Florida revises fall testing schedule for storm-impacted students

Times (2015)

Hurricane Irma might have interrupted student testing. But it won't put an end to it.

The Florida Department of Education has posted a revised schedule for this month's end-of-course exam retakes in biology, civics, U.S. history, algebra I and geometry, allowing the assessments to begin Sept. 18 but extending the final date until a time to be set in the future. It did the same for the 10th grade language arts retake.

"We will offer as much flexibility as needed," education commissioner Pam Stewart told superintendents in a memo. "For those of you assessing damage and rebuilding communities, please know that you have our full support and all students who require one of the fall assessments will have an opportunity to participate."

Some parent groups have suggested the testing be canceled and the money be used for school repairs and other community needs. That appears unlikely at this time.

The ACT, meanwhile, also has made arrangements for students whose college-entry testing plans were disrupted by the storm. Students had planned to use their scores on their applications. …

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Here's what you should know about Pinellas' board workshop, meeting and budget hearing

The Pinellas County School Board on Tuesday will have a workshop, board meeting and second public hearing on the 2017-18 budget and tax rate.

Times files

The Pinellas County School Board on Tuesday will have a workshop, board meeting and second public hearing on the 2017-18 budget and tax rate.

All eyes will be on the Pinellas County School Board as it will hold a vote to join 11 other school districts in a lawsuit against the Florida Legislature over a controversial, charter-friendly bill.

Aside from that vote at the 3:30 p.m. board meeting, the board will have a packed day Tuesday with an 11 a.m. workshop and second public hearing on the budget and tax rate at 5:01 p.m. Here's what you should keep an eye on.

- The School Board is expected to approve a $1.5 billion budget and revised tax rate. Board members will discuss levying a proposed rate of $7.01 for every $1,000 of taxable property value, which is lower than last year's rate of $7.32.

Despite the lower rate, many tax bills will grow because of a 7.7 percent increase in taxable property values. The new rate is expected to bring in $16.6 million more in school district revenue.

- A report on the district's initiatives to improve education for black students with Florida Standards Assessments scores, discipline data and gifted screenings will be presented at the board workshop. See the summary here. …

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Sunshine in Hillsborough

Hillsborough County School Board members will gather this week for these meetings;

Tuesday, 9-11 a.m., - Full board workshop on National Association of Charter School Authorizers evaluation, School Board Auditorium, 901 E Kennedy Blvd. 

Tuesday, 3 p.m.  School Board Meeting  and Final Public Hearing on Budget, School Board Auditorium.

Wednesday, 11 a.m., - Facilities Committee Meeting, School Board Conference Room 223.

Wednesday, 1 p.m. - Communications Committee Meeting, School Board Conference Room 223.

Wednesday, 2 p.m. - Human Resources Committee Meeting, School Board Conference Room 223.

Thursday, 11:30 a.m. - Transportation Committee Meeting, School Board Conference Room 223.

All of these meetings are subject to the state sunshine law and open to the public


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"Business as usual," principals say, at two schools under one roof

Beverly Smith is principal of Lee Elementary School


Beverly Smith is principal of Lee Elementary School

Their questions were mostly about the here and now. Where can I find my child at the end of the day? Where will he eat lunch? 

One by one, principals Beverly Smith and Sharon Waite sought to reassure them that Lee Elementary and Lockhart Elementary can co-exist under one roof, each maintaining its own identity and traditions.

"We're going to make this work and it will be successful," Waite, the Lockhart principal, told dozens of parents who gathered in the cafeteria on Monday morning.

Will the schools still offer childcare?

Yes, before and after school, they were told.

Will students wear the same uniforms they did before a fire destroyed Lee Elementary's red brick building on Sept. 12?

Yes, they were told, the same uniforms.

And what about clubs such as the student newspaper, the Lee Gazette?

"We are working with Ms. Waite to preserve all our clubs," Smith told the parents.

Three fifth grade classes will be housed temporarily at neaby Young Middle School. But, the parents were told, the kids will eat breakfast and lunch in the Lockhart cafeteria. Nine portable classrooms will be installed at Lockhart.

Yes, the parents were told, they can walk their children to class. …

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Florida education news: Hurricane Irma, teacher evaluations, Baker Act and more

Alessandra Da Pra | Times

AFTER THE STORM: Children and teachers across much of Florida return to school Monday after a week or more away because of Hurricane Irma. Getting back to normal will — and should — take some time, experts say. • Hillsborough school district officials are conducting a survey to help determine how to make up the lost time. Palm Beach County officials also are looking at makeup planning, the Palm Beach Post reports. • Marion County school employees helped guide their county's shelter operations, the Ocala Star-Banner reports. • Many Miami-Dade County schools face obstacles to reopening, the Miami Herald reports. • The severity of the storm might lead lawmakers to reconsider building standards for charter schools, WLRN reports. • Monroe County schools aggressively target Sept. 25 as their reopening date, the Keynoter reports.

AFTER THE FIRE: Volunteers arrive by the hundreds to help Lee Elementary teachers prepare classrooms in a new location after their school burns.

COLLEGE COSTS: A growing number of Florida college students turn to crowdfunding to help them pay tuition and fees. …

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