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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Tampa City Council members say thanks — and no thanks — to honoring MaryEllen Elia

The Hillsborough County School Board is not the only local elected body with mixed feelings about outgoing school superintendent MaryEllen Elia.

While Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is a big fan of Elia, the City Council split Thursday on giving Elia a commendation thanking her for 10 years of service as superintendent. The vote for the commendation, suggested by council member Harry Cohen, was 5 to 2, with Mary Mulhern and Frank Reddick voting no.

Reddick said after the meeting that he voted against the commendation because city officials "keep dipping" into School Board affairs that do not concern them, and "we should stay out of that."

"She might be deserving of the commendation, and they just had a reception for her where she recevied a lot of accolades," Reddick said. "That should suffice, and they should just move on. The city of Tampa has no business trying to politicize Ms. Elia and the vote that took place at the school district."

Mulhern said it was “unbelieveable” that the council would consider a commendation. …

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As tech problems linger, the Florida House tackles testing

The Florida House plans to move quickly on its testing bill, leaders said Thursday.

"We're going to try to get this to the floor as soon as we possibly can so we can alleviate all of the stress and uncertainty in the field," House Education Committee Chairwoman Marlene O'Toole said.

Her goal: to ensure "the teachers can teach, the students can learn, and the parents can be assured that we know what we're doing." 

The 70-page draft proposal is similar to the version in the Senate. It eliminates a new 11th grade language arts exam, removes the requirement that school districts test every student in every subject, and reduces the extent to which student test performance factors into teacher pay.

It also gives local school districts the flexibility to start school as early as August 10. (Current law says school may start no earlier than two weeks before Labor Day.)

The House education panel took some testimony on the proposal Thursday morning.

Orange County Schools lobbyist Scott Howat called the bill "an excellent start," but raised questions related to this week's bungled administration of new online tests. …

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Activists: Say 'no' to guns on campus


Activists are launching an aggressive campaign against legislative proposals that would allow guns on Florida campuses.

The groups, Everytown for Gun Safety and the Florida chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, have a new television ad that will air across Florida. It features a clip of National Rifle Association Executive Director Wayne LaPierre telling the 1999 NRA convention that schools should be "absolutely gun free."

"What was true then should be true now," the ad says. "So why are Florida's lawmakers trying to allow guns into schools and force them onto college campuses?"

The TV spot references two pieces of legislation, one of which would allow permitted individuals to carry concealed weapons on college and university properties. The bill (HB 4005/SB 176) has already won the approval of one Senate panel, despite strong objections from Florida State University President John Thrasher and the state Board of Governors.

The other bill (HB 19/SB 180) would allow designated teachers and other school employees to carry concealed weapons on public school campuses. …

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Florida Legislature moves to change school start date rules

Since 2007, Florida school districts have not been able to start classes earlier than two weeks before Labor Day.

With Labor Day falling later than usual this year, in the second week of September, school districts have asked for the law to change. Lawmakers appear ready to oblige.

The House testing bill would permit school to begin as early as Aug. 10. Senate Bill 688, meanwhile, would set the start date at no earlier than three weeks before Labor Day.

"The districts wanted flexibility," House Education chairwoman Rep. Marlene O'Toole said. "We've given it to them."

More than anything, districts want to complete the first semester before winter break. They're required to have a minimum number of class hours per semester, and the late Labor Day made that task impossible before the holidays. Many districts reluctantly set their first semester exams for mid-January 2016, with hopes lawmakers would give some relief.

The House and Senate education panels seemed willing. But some members raised questions that have kept such changes from taking place in past years. …

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Florida education news: Testing, teachers, vouchers and more

TESTING: The Florida Senate moves forward with legislation to cut back on testing and its uses. • South Florida school districts prepare to resume computerized testing after days of problems, the Miami Herald reports. • Bigger fixes and a suspension of penalties are needed, the Sun-Sentinel editorializes. • More from the Palm Beach Post, Orlando Sentinel.

TEACHERS: Expecting a teacher shortage, the Hernando school district will recruit in New York for the first time in recent memory. • The Leon School Board is expected to approve a two-year teacher contract with raises, the Tallahassee Democrat reports.

GRADUATION: Hillsborough high schoolers offer advice on how to improve graduation rates.

SUPERINTENDENTS: The Duval School Board renews superintendent Nikolai Vitti's contract for three years, the Florida Times-Union reports. • The Broward School Board gives superintendent Robert Runcie a strong evaluation, the Sun-Sentinel reports.

BUS SAFETY: A central Florida dad fighting for tougher school bus stop safety laws sees the bills make progress, WKMG reports.

VOUCHERS: Lawmakers propose adjustments to Florida's new Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts, Redefined reports.

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Pasco schools continue to feel testing pain

Addressing senators Wednesday morning, Florida education commissioner Pam Stewart pledged that the state's computerized testing troubles were over.

"With 100 percent certainty we can move forward. Everything we are seeing is it is working as it should," Stewart told the Education Appropriations subcommittee.

Later in the day, committee member Sen. Bill Montford pointedly disagreed. The problems still exist, the Tallahassee Democrat said, even in Pasco County. He named the county to drive home the point for Senate Education Committee chairman John Legg, sponsor of testing reform legislation who lives in Pasco.

Those difficulties included students more than 200 students getting kicked out of the online testing system while taking the exam, some needing more than an hour to get back in. About a dozen were unable to retrieve their work, district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said. Several students received random error messages, as well.

"Most students were able to complete their exams with little disruption, but we’re still not happy with the way this is going," Cobbe said. …

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Florida House releases draft of its testing bill

The Florida House has been fairly tight lipped about testing while the Senate tackles the topic.

In advance of the House Education Committee's meeting Thursday, the panel has revealed its draft legislation on the subject, which has captured attention as districts have struggled with testing implementation.

The draft would reduce the amount testing counts toward teacher evaluations to one-third, similar to a committee substitute in the Senate. It also would eliminate the requirement of end-of-course exams for every course, similar to the Senate, and have the education commissioner set a uniform testing schedule for all districts.

The House would allow non-educators to proctor exams, something not currently allowed. It also would allow the districts to start school earlier in August than two weeks before Labor Day, as current law requires. And the House tackles student progression issues, such as third grade promotion, which the Senate does not address in its bill.

There's plenty of room for debate and compromise, depending on how things go.  …

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Like school uniforms? A bill encouraging them moves in Florida House

A bill that "encourages" Florida public school districts to adopt student uniforms won enthusiastic, bipartisan support in the Florida House K-12 Committee on Wednesday.

Chairwoman Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, proposed the measure, suggesting it would help increase school security because students who belong on campus would be easily identifiable. She also stressed that it included incentives and would remain an option for districts, rather than being a mandate.

Rep. Joseph Geller, an Aventura Democrat, said his initial inclination was to oppose the bill.

"The facts changed my preconceived notion," Geller said, calling the proposal "great."

He recommended, however, that Adkins consider amending the provisions relating to opting out of the uniforms, if a district were to adopt them. He noted that representatives from "a P district" advised that it avoided lawsuits in its dress code mandates by having a permissive opt-out rule.

The bill currently has a few limited options for declining the uniforms. Adkins said she would look at the idea more closely. …

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Florida testing issues settle as debate moves to the Legislature

Land O Lakes High School students prepare to take the Florida Standards Assessment writing test

Andy Dunn / Pasco County School Board

Land O Lakes High School students prepare to take the Florida Standards Assessment writing test

Reports of problems with Florida's computerized writing test dwindled off Wednesday morning, with most area schools having fewer of the login troubles that scuttled the past two days.

"Schools across the district did experience slow loading this morning," Pasco County district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said. But "so far, no school has suspended testing."

Pasco and Hillsborough schools resumed testing after taking a day off to let the state resolve its technology problems, which appeared to stem from servers and software. "We're not having any issues. the last two days we had problems before 9:15. Today we have not had any calls," Hillsborough spokesman Steve Hegarty said.

Pinellas schools did not delay Tuesday.

Other districts, including Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, canceled FSA computerized testing again Wednesday. Their superintendents have said they don't want to start again until they feel comfortable that the system won't hurt students. …

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Florida education news: Testing, technology, Taliban and more

TESTING: Florida's computerized testing endures another day of problems, prompting some districts to postpone for another day. The issue heads to Tallahassee today. • An Orange County parent complains of difficulties as she tries to take her child home after opting out, the Orlando Sentinel reports. • Okaloosa students say the new tests are fine, the Northwest Florida Daily News reports. • More from the Bradenton Herald, Miami Herald, Sun-Sentinel

SUPERINTENDENTS: The Hillsborough School Board agrees narrowly to offer Jeff Eakins the superintendent's job, without any search. • Five finalists seek the Indian River superintendency, the Vero Beach Press-Journal reports.

CHARTER SCHOOLS: Florida lawmakers consider creating a charter school institute at FSU, to support applicant and sponsors, the Tallahassee Democrat reports.

TECHNOLOGY: The St. Johns school district sees academic gains with its Digital 1:1 initiative, the St. Augustine Record reports.

TEACHER DISCIPLINE: A Broward parent calls for the dismissal of a teacher who he says called his child a "rag-head Taliban," the Sun-Sentinel reports. …

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Florida computerized testing better, but not perfect, commissioner says

Toward the end of another problem-filled testing day, Florida education commissioner Pam Stewart on Tuesday advised superintendents that her department had continued to work the kinks out of the system.

Vendor AIR took "full responsibility," Stewart said, and progress was being made. But she made no promises for Wednesday.

"While we cannot guarantee that some users will not encounter similar issues tomorrow, I also do not want to prevent any districts who have had success from continuing their testing tomorrow," Stewart wrote.

At least a few superintendents said they wouldn't risk it, including those from Miami-Dade, Leon and Broward.

“We want the best possible testing environment for our students and that will not occur if there is any doubt that students will be able to sign on and complete their tests,” Leon superintendent Jackie Pons said in a statement to the Times. “The tenth grade test is directly tied to a graduation requirement. Based on my nine years of experiences as superintendent, we cannot afford to allow our students to go in to take a test with such high stakes and not have all the issues resolved." …

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Principals are reshuffled in Hillsborough

Johan von Ancken

Johan von Ancken

These prinicipal moves were included in Tuesday's Hillsborough County School Board agenda:

* Johan von Ancken, 36, will move from Hillsborough High School to East Bay High School.

* Maria Gsell, 60, the principal at East Bay, will take Von Ancken's job at Hillsborough.

* Terry Hawthorne, 52, will leave Broward Elementary School to become a human resource partner, a new position for the district.

* Jacquelyn Scaglione will leave Ben Hill Middle School to become another human resource partner.

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Two Democratic senators urge Gov. Rick Scott to suspend Florida testing

With Florida's new computerized testing system still struggling to perform, two state senators sent Gov. Rick Scott a letter urging him to call the whole thing off.

"It was not as if this impending catastrophe came without warning," Democrats Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth and Dwight Bullard wrote. "Superintendents, administrators and teachers, as well as legislators, from across the state have continued to steadfastly declare that we, as a state, were not ready to handle this testing system. Their please were ignored by the Department of Education, which now claims that only a few thousand students were unable to test on March 2. This is such a terrible twisting of the truth as to be almost unbelievable."

Read the full letter here.

The letter writers are in the political minority in Tallahassee. But their words are being passed around even among some very conservative Floridians, the anti-Common Core groups that have joined the state's growing anti-testing fervor.  …

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Florida House committee to consider paying districts to implement student uniforms

As anticipated, the Florida House K-12 subcommittee has put forth a bill to address the clothes kids wear to school.

Cloaking the issue as one of student safety, the Students Attired for Safe Education bill aims to limit students' wardrobe choices to, essentially, solid colored pants or skirts, and collared shirts. Students would be encouraged to "express their individuality through personality and academic achievements, rather than outward appearance."

Districts and schools have had this opportunity for years, of course, choosing to implement uniforms to varying degrees. Some parents and principals swear by them, while others find them an unnecessary extra thing to monitor. The two sides recently faced off at Pasco County's Seven Springs Middle School, where uniforms did not win the day.

Knowing there's reluctance out there, and a need for more money, the House sponsors have added a financial incentive — the bill provides for $10 per student for any district that implements a district-wide "standard student attire policy." The money would come from a $10 million safe schools allocation in the state's education finance program. …

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Florida education commissioner gives okay to return to testing

Florida education commissioner Pam Stewart told school district superintendents shortly after 7 a.m. that her department and testing vendor AIR had located and fixed the cause of Monday's computerized testing problems.

She advised that schools can begin testing again as soon as they wish, and that the online effort should be vastly improved. Several districts already have canceled testing for today. UPDATE: Shortly after the memo came out, Hillsborough schools experienced similar problems as occurred Monday and told schools they could discontinue testing. See the breaking story here.

Read on for Stewart's full memo:

From: Commissioner Stewart <>
Date: March 3, 2015 at 7:06:57 AM EST
Subject: FSA Update


The department worked with AIR throughout the day and into the evening yesterday to better understand the issues that affected online testing in Florida on Monday. AIR has determined that a software issue caused log-in issues, including delays and error messages for a number of districts. AIR reports that of the 69,177 tests that were started yesterday, 67,745 were successfully completed. …

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