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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

How do Hillsborough middle magnet schools work anyway?

As the Hillsborough County school district steps up its efforts to market magnet middle schools to children in East Tampa, the question might arise: How will they get in?

First: A lot of East Tampa students already attend the five middle schools in their community. Young, the science magnet, has 71 students who live in the 33605 zip code right around the school.

And no, we are told, they don't need high grades or musical talent to get in.

Middle magnet schools choose their students through what is known as a "randomized lottery."

It works like this, according to staff at the magnet office: Students apply for programs that might interest them. A computer program then weights their applications, based on a number of factors listed in this document. 

By law, they cannot include race. 

But the overall goals include achieving racial diversity, and that goal is written right into the proposals the district sometimes submits for federal grant funding.

The computer program seeks to select the largest possible variety of zip codes and income levels. One way of achieving economic diversity is to consider whether the student qualifies for free lunch. …

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Pinellas School Board to consider easing zero tolerance rules

With the change of one word, the Pinellas School Board could lessen the potential penalty for students who bring weapons to school without any intent to use them.

A proposed amendment to the district Code of Conduct would no longer require that students be suspended if they have a weapon but don't use or threaten to use them. It reads:

Any student who brings, possesses or exhibits a dangerous object at school, or to any school function, or on any school-sponsored transportation, without the use or threatened use in an offensive or defensive manner, is guilty of a serious breach of conduct and that student will may be suspended from school for ten (10) days and may be recommended for reassignment or expulsion.

Superintendent Mike Grego explained in a memo that this change would "provide more administrator discretion in administering discipline" in this section of rules. Students who use or threaten to use weapons would continue to face automatic suspension.

Florida lawmakers first moved to scale back zero tolerance laws about six years ago, but the press to further reform them has continued since. The Pinellas School Board will consider this proposed local change at its May 19 meeting.

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Pasco School Board aims to tackle absenteeism

Pasco school district leaders identified student absenteeism as a problem four years ago, when seven of 11 elementary feeder patters had more than half their students missing 10 or more days of classes.

Time passed, but the situation didn't change. In 2012-13, for instance, more than a third of high school students missed 20 or more days. The School Board again called for action in September.

More than half a year later, the district staff is ready to talk about possible answers.

"It's not a simple fix," student services director Melissa Musselwhite said. "Every layer we pull back, we identify another area we need to focus on."

So rather than trying a gimmicky response, such as having principals go to peoples' homes and offer to drive kids to class, the administration is proposing several steps aimed at improving attendance. These range from creating consistent definitions and expectations -- and following those, to collecting clear data that can drive decisions school by school. …

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Florida education news: School improvement, community colleges, superintendents and more

PAYING ATTENTION: Hillsborough's new superintendent plans to improve the education for east Tampa students who have been bused out of their neighborhoods.

CHARTER SCHOOLS: Plato Academy plans to expand to its seventh site in Pinellas County.

GET STARTED: The Pasco school district received some good advice in a recent TNTP report and now should act upon it, the Times editorializes.

SUPERINTENDENTS: Fulton Co. superintendent Robert Avossa takes the top job at Palm Beach schools, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. More from the Sun-Sentinel, Palm Beach Post. * A 15-member community panel will help pick Brevard's next superintendent, Florida Today reports.

TESTING: Collier district officials are initially pleased with the steps lawmakers have taken to change Florida testing law, the Naples Herald reports.

BACHELOR'S DEGREES: Sen. Joe Negron reaches a deal with community colleges on their focus, which he hopes to get into law, the Florida Times-Union reports. More from the Ledger.

BACK TO SCHOOL: Marion County joins the ranks of districts moving the first day of 2015-16 back a week as permitted by new law, the Ocala Star-Banner reports. …

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Eakins on new laws, school choice and filling Elia's shoes

Acting superintendent Jeff Eakins is a listener who is analyzing the causes for kids not graduating and hoping to make each school attractive.

Hillsborough County Public Schools

Acting superintendent Jeff Eakins is a listener who is analyzing the causes for kids not graduating and hoping to make each school attractive.

In addition to his remarks about progress at McLane Middle School, Hillsborough acting superintendent Jeff Eakins spoke with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board on a variety of topics. He described a study he did on the 26.5 percent of Hillsborough 12th graders who did not earn diplomas this past year. We look forward to reporting on his results in more detail. He also answered questions about the Legislature, his views on school choice and customer service, and what it's like to follow the high-profile MaryEllen Elia as a school district leader.

Here is some of what he said.

On the passage of House Bill 7069:

"Ultimately there were a lot of flexibilities given in that particular bill that we need to take advantage of."

He's glad schools can adopt earlier start dates, as secondary students in Hillsborough now take their midterm exams in January. "'Welcome to your winter break. And by the way, you'll be studying on your winter break.' With that flexibility we can now create a calendar that is more student friendly, teacher friendly and parent friendly, and get a clean break." …

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Florida lawmakers push for safer conditions for students who walk to school

We've been down this path before. 

Floridians complain about the unsafe conditions that some children must traverse when headed to and from school. They highlight tragic deaths that occurred while a youngster walked along a busy highway without sidewalks.

Lawmakers talk about the issue. Last year, they almost passed a bill changing the rules for identifying hazardous walking routes and providing added school buses.

This year, they're close again.

The House on Thursday unanimously approved a bill (HB 41) that would more strictly define the unsafe walking paths and have local governments fix them within a certain period of time. Until the issue is corrected, the school district would have to provide transporation to students who would have used it.

A companion bill (SB 154) is making its way through the Senate, with its last committee stop today. So far, no senators have opposed the measure.

With two weeks left in session, it's getting tight to win passage. But the initiative appears to have support all around, so this year might be the year. Stay tuned.

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What's happening on the Florida education budget front?

Not much, actually. 

The Florida House and Senate have different proposals on 2015-16 school spending, each of which differs slightly from what Gov. Rick Scott requested.

But discussions to reach consensus haven't begun. Ruth Melton from the Florida School Boards Association described it best in her daily update to members: …

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Florida education news: Guns, gardens, school start dates and more

GUNS IN SCHOOL: The Florida Senate Education Committee declines a vote on a bill to let teachers carry on campus, effectively killing the measure.

HOW'D YOU DO? Florida students and schools won't learn the results of their Florida Standards Assessments for months. * Osceola schools eliminate 35 local end-of-course exams, the Osceola News-Gazette reports. * The University of Florida sponsors a two-week algebra study challenge for Alachua ninth-graders, the Gainesville Sun reports.

NEW BLOOD: A dozen Hillsborough schools will get new principals.

GREEN THUMBS: Spring Hill Head Start students will learn how a garden grows.

BACK TO SCHOOL: The Lake school district surveys parents to determine whether to change its first day of school, the Orlando Sentinel reports. * The Manatee School Board moves its start date to Aug. 10, the earliest now allowed, the Bradenton Herald reports.

CROWDING: Some Miami-Dade parents and teachers accuse the district of violating the state class size amendment, NBC Miami reports.

ATHLETICS: Bills to overhaul the oversight of Florida high school sports gain traction in the Legislature, the Stuart News reports. …

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School guns bill dies in Florida Senate

A bill to allow select Florida school teachers to carry concealed guns on campus has died in the Florida Senate. It went down without a final vote.

Senate Education Committee chairman John Legg, a key Republican critic of the measure, had called a special meeting of his panel this afternoon to consider SB 180. He wanted to have an up-or-down vote, to prevent the language being added to another bill as a floor amendment.

A "no" vote would kill the proposal outright, he reasoned.

The committee instead declined to act on the bill for a second straight meeting. Legg explained that he had learned a vote wasn't necessary to kill it.

"I spoke to the clerk. The Senate rules were modified," Legg told the Gradebook via text message. "The bill is dead. They cannot amend it to any bill in the Senate."

The committee did narrowly approve a controversial proposal to reduce the powers of the Florida High School Athletic Association.

Read more here. See the committee expanded agenda here.

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Task force gets an invitation to McLane Middle School

The Hillsborough County Public Schools superintendent and School Board have yet to say a word about Bused and Broken, the Tampa Bay Times April 5 report about the long-term effects of busing East Tampa students to Brandon's McLane Middle School.

But the school and its area leader did respond, in the form of an invitation to a task force that is focused on minority student discipline.

The task force, which includes leaders in the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union, was invited to hold its next meeting at McLane on May 8. The program includes lunch, a tour, and a question-and-answer session.

In its report, The Times described record levels of suspensions and expulsion cases at McLane, both for the 2013-14 school year and the decade. In that year, an average of one student per week left the school in handcuffs. The Times also detailed efforts principal Dina Langston and area director Owen Young are making to improve the outcomes for hundreds of McLane students from East Tampa, who are represented disproportionately in the discipline statistics.  …

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Eakins could be hired ahead of schedule

Acting superintendent Jeff Eakins could be named Hillsborough's superintendent on Tuesday, effective July 1. A contract is expected in time for the School Board meeting.

Hillsborough County Public Schools

Acting superintendent Jeff Eakins could be named Hillsborough's superintendent on Tuesday, effective July 1. A contract is expected in time for the School Board meeting.

The Hillsborough County School Board gave itself until June 9 to reach a contract agreement with acting superintendent Jeff Eakins. That's because MaryEllen Elia officially leaves the job on June 30.

But it appears Eakins will make it official a lot sooner.

The final item on Tuesday's meeting agenda says: "Approve the contract for Jeff Eakins for Superintendent."

Jim Porter, the board's attorney, confirmed via text that the contract is being finalized "and should be ready for the vote."

No details were provided about Eakins' salary or the length of the contract.

Eakins, 49, has been with the district since 1989 and is respected by both sides of an often divided board. He stepped in as acting superintendent shortly after the board voted 4-3 to terminate Elia's contract without cause.



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Outgoing Tampa Palms Elementary principal gets Congressional mention

Outgoing Tampa Palms Elementary principal Kimberly Keenan gets a lot of accolades.

But it's not every day that she's mentioned in Congress.

U.S. Rep. Dennis A. Ross, a Republican from Lakeland and the Senior Deputy Majority Whip, spoke of Keenan Wednesday on the House floor.

"Mrs. Keenan has been both the Assistant Principal and Principal of Tampa Palms Elementary School in the School District of Hillsborough County for 18 years," Ross said. …

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Florida not "too scared of change" in education, State Board member says

Watching other states fight over education standards, and waver over reform efforts, State Board of Education vice chairman John Padget says he's "proud to be a Floridian."

"Some have gotten too scared of changes, and actually fallen down and dropped standards," said Padget, a Keys investor who once served as Monroe schools superintendent. "Think of where we are in Florida."

The board, commissioner, governor and lawmakers are aligned in their views of education and accountability, he said. They've held the course on adopting and sticking to high expectations, he continued, without fearing to make adjustments as necessary. He mentioned the latest changes to state testing law as an example.

"I predicted there might be a hiccup or two. There were. There may be more," he said. "We should not be afraid of change."

Chairman Gary Chartrand agreed, saying the board must meet its responsibility and challenge of ensuring all children are well educated and prepared for college and careers.

"The puck is moving in the direction of 1 million computer science jobs that will go unfilled" by 2018, Chartrand said. "They'll be filled, but they won't be filled by American workers." …

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Don't expect Florida testing results before winter, education commissioner says

Florida students are taking their state standardized tests now through May. When will they learn how they did?

Not for a good long while.

The Florida Department of Education will conduct its regular third-party validation study of the exams. A second independent review also will occur, as required by newly approved law. Those are due by Sept. 1.

After the results arrive, the department must then set the cut scores for each test. That process starts with hundreds of Florida educators, moving next to reactor panels, lawmakers, public input and ultimately the State Board of Education.

The upshot? Student results, school grades and other information won't be available until a "December time frame," commissioner Pam Stewart told the State Board on Wednesday.

Board member Rebecca Fishman Lipsey worried that schools will lack information needed to make academic decisions, such as whether to move students out of ESOL programs. It's important for teachers to have data, she said, in order to make smart choices.

Vice chairman John Padget suggested streamlining the process.

"I would think it's in the interest of the whole state that we do it right but we do it as early as possible," Padget said. …

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Florida education news: Testing law, computer hacking, board politics and more

TESTING: Gov. Rick Scott signs into law changes to Florida's testing system, auch as a reduction in duplicative exams. Critics, including the Times editorial board, want more.

HACKING: The Pasco sheriff sticks to his decision to arrest an eighth grader who accessed school computer networks amid national criticism, as the school district seeks to prevent a repeat.

BOARD POLITICS: The Volusia School Board considers dropping its Florida School Boards Association membership, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reports.

PUBLIC VIEWS: Manatee residents complain about superintendent Rick Mills, who angrily responds, the Bradenton Herald reports. More from the Herald-Tribune. * A Manatee county commissioner says the school district needs to better communicate over impact fee issues, the Bradenton Herald reports.

CHARTER SCHOOLS: The Collier school district will continue to collect a 5 percent administrative fee from charter schools despite requests for a lower amount, the Naples Daily News reports.

LABOR NEWS: Some Miami-Dade teachers say speaking critically about the system carries risks of retribution, the Miami Herald reports. …

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