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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

ICYMI: Florida education news in review, Week of Aug. 24, 2016

This week in Florida education news, the state's third grade retention law came up for its court hearing. The judge issued her ruling on venue and injunctive relief late Friday. Florida's tax credit scholarship program hit a new participation high. And a form allowing Leon County parents to opt their children out of reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at school sparked a firestorm. Get the latest Florida education news daily at the Gradebook.

Judge issues mixed ruling on Florida's third-grade retention law, Jeffrey S. Solochek
"A Leon County circuit court judge has come down in favor of families challenging Florida's third-grade retention practices, ruling that school districts ignored the children's right to alternative forms of promotion and the state Department of Education allowed that to happen."
ORDER: Rhea v. Stewart
BACKGROUND: Judge weighs Florida third-grade testing policy after contentious hearing, News Service of Florida, Brandon Larrabee …

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Judge issues mixed ruling on Florida's third-grade retention law

A Leon County circuit court judge has come down in favor of families challenging Florida's third-grade retention practices, ruling that school districts ignored the children's right to alternative forms of promotion and the state Department of Education allowed that to happen.

In her order, Judge Karen Gievers highly criticized the Hernando County school district for its "illegal refusal" to allow students to have a portfolio option to demonstrate their reading abilities, as permitted in statute. Notably, she also included report cards "based on classroom work throughout the course of the school year" as an acceptable option.

Gievers took a further step in undercutting Florida's long-time reliance on testing by validating the Opt Out Network's use of "minimal participation."

"The statute does not define participation," Gievers wrote in her order. "The children were present on time, broke the seal on the materials and wrote their names, thus meeting their obligation to participate." …

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Enrollment drops in Pinellas County public schools

Pinellas County's public school population has dropped below 101,000.

The district recently released its 10-day count of public school enrollments by grade. This year, 100,680 students in Kindergarten through 12th grade are enrolled in public school, including charter schools. That's down from last year's count of 101,043, continuing the overall decline in enrollment.

District officials noted that while Pinellas' overall enrollment is down, traditional public schools saw an increase of 583 students while enrollment in charter schools decreased by 363 students. That makes sense, as two charter schools folded and the district absorbed another charter school this year, displacing more than 1,200 students out of charter schools.

After years of enrollment gains, the number of students attending charter schools may flatten out. This is the second year the Pinellas County charter school office has no applications to review to open new charter schools. …

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Pasco union, school district $3.2 million apart on teacher pay raises

To no one's surprise, proposals in Pasco County's teacher contract talks Thursday looked much like the offers made for school-related employees a day earlier -- the sides opened far apart on terms.

The United School Employees of Pasco put it succinctly in its update to members: "More of the same."

Bottom line, the sides stood $3.17 million apart in their initial proposals. More specifically:

The USEP has asked for $9.4 million toward raises, or 4 percent. Half of the money would go to cost-of-living increases for everyone, while the other half would go into the district's salary schedules. It also put forth language to guarantee teachers in differentiated accountability schools are paid for all their work hours.

The district has offered $6.23 million for raises, or 2.65 percent, just as leaders have indicated would be coming. The money would be split between COLA and performance pay plans, as the USEP also suggested. …

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Florida education news: Mold, internships, gifted programs and more

SICK SCHOOL: Officials investigate complaints of mold at Plato Academy charter school in Largo.

REAL WORLD: Some Dunedin High students get job experiences through the school's internship program.

CAMPAIGN TRAIL: Nine candidates vie for three Pinellas School Board seats. * Funds from construction firms fill Orange School Board candidates' campaign accounts, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

WELCOME BACK: Staff of a Collier elementary school go to their students' neighborhoods to greet the new school year, the Naples Daily News reports.

ISOLATED INCIDENT: A Manatee school bus driver who allowed a 27-year-old to ride the bus to Manatee High will not be disciplined, the Bradenton Herald reports. More from the Herald-Tribune.

GIFTED EDUCATION: A Palm Beach dad explains how he got his sons into school gifted programs when few other black children were enrolled, the Palm Beach Post reports.

ANTI-BULLYING: Some students at an Okaloosa high school fight back against classmates bullying others, the Northwest Florida Daily News reports.

ENFORCEMENT: Highlands school administrators turn to law enforcement for lessons on how to investigate accusations, Highlands Today reports. …

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Following the Money: Workforce adjustments in Hillsborough are routine, district says

Hillsborough district spokeswoman Tanya Arja responded Wednesday to rumors about job cuts with this statement:

The ongoing adjustments are business as usual.

Chief of Staff Alberto Vazquez, in a meeting recently with the eight area superintendents, told them all to evaluate their schools and make sure that they were properly staffed. Or, as Arja put it, "ensure the units were properly allocated."

In other words, a school might have eight English teacher positions but only enough students to fill seven English classes. "Some of those units might be empty units," she said. Translation: The eighth English teacher might not have even been hired yet. At last count, the district had 180 teacher vacancies spread across roughly 250 schools.

The exercise Vazquez ordered up was completely routine, Arja said. "That's what we do every year. They were told to capture what their schools have and what their needs are."  …

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Pasco school district, employee union offer salary counterproposals

As anticipated, Pasco County's employee union and School Board offered differing visions of what they'd like to see in a pay package when they sat at the bargaining table Wednesday.

During negotiations for school-related personnel, the United School Employees of Pasco presented a 4 percent raise request, urging the district to dip into its unrestricted reserves to bolster salaries.

"USEP believes that it is much more prudent and beneficial to invest in the District's employees than it is to have that money sitting in the bank, not drawing any interest," the group said in a news release.

As last year, the district did not follow the tradition of waiting for the union's proposal and then making a counter. Its representatives came with offer in hand.

Based on the School Board's tentative budget, the district proposed adding 2.65 percent, on average, to workers' base salary.

The difference between the two -- $918,220.

That amount will likely rise as the two sides return to the table Thursday evening to discuss teacher pay and benefits. Each has indicated that its proposal will mirror the ones presented for SRP's. …

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Events: Black Men & Boys Week starts Monday

Black Men & Boys Week 2016 starts Monday in Pinellas County. Here's the schedule of events:

Monday: "The Faith Community Role in After-School Education," by Rev. Dr. Alfonso Wyatt, 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at Mt. Zion Progressive M.B.C.

Tuesday: "More than a Statistic: The Plight of Black Men and Boys," moderated by Dr. Christopher Warren, 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., USFSP Davis Hall Room 130

Wednesday: "Save Children, Save Schools: Education Resources for Parents," by Dr. Willie J. Kimmons, 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Enoch Davis Recreation Center

Thursday: "I Can Be a Better Dad: Child Engagement Strategies," by Kenneth Braswell, 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital Education and Conference Center

Friday: "I've Got Your Back: The Importance of Black Men Mentoring," by Stephen Powell, 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital Education and Conference Center

Saturday: "Raising Him Alone: Strategies for Mothers Raising Black Boys," by David Miller, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Child's Park YMCA

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Florida tax credit scholarships hit record level

Participation in Florida's tax credit scholarship program, which helps low-income students pay tuition at private schools, has surpassed 90,000 children for the first time, scholarship organization Step Up for Students announced Thursday.

The partial total of 92,011 scholarships is up 17 percent from a year ago, and more than 550 percent from 2005. The state's new Gardiner education savings account also served 5,844 students with special needs. A second, smaller scholarship authorizer did not issue numbers.

"Florida is a national leader in expanding educational opportunity, and the latest numbers again show that parents appreciate the power to access additional options that can best serve their children," Step Up president Doug Tuthill, said in a news release. "We are proud to be part of this growing, bipartisan movement to strengthen public education." …

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The real work begins at Mort's community school

Mort Elementary Principal Woodland Johnson greeted parents at a Spanish-language Parent Engagement class Wednesday. This was the first in a series as Mort becomes a community school.


Mort Elementary Principal Woodland Johnson greeted parents at a Spanish-language Parent Engagement class Wednesday. This was the first in a series as Mort becomes a community school.

After months of ceremony, the first official work of the Mort Elementary Community School began with 16 mothers telling one another, "Good evening, everybody, my name is ...."

Wednesday's session, conducted entirely in Spanish, was Mort's first Engaged Parents class, led by instructors from the local Hispanic Services Council.

The group will gather at the north Hillsborough school every week to learn about resources in the public schools while their children are provided with dinner and activities in another room.

Principal Woodland Johnson, who addressed the group in English, said he was thrilled to see the first results of what, for school leaders, has long been a dream.

Then Luz Zuluaga and Maria Garavito got down to business.

Why are the parents here, they asked?

To help their children, they agreed.

Who wants their children to attend college?

Two hands went up. Then three. Then, gradually, nearly every woman raised her hand.

But when Zuluaga asked how many knew how precisely to get their children into college, or if they were familiar with the Florida Standards Assessment, or bureaucratic terms like TItle I, she got a lot of smiles and blank stares. …

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Florida education news: STEM lessons, Pledge of Allegiance, teacher pay and more

HANDS ON: Pasco's Cotee River Elementary holds a student STEAM Olympics as part of the district's effort to step up science and math programs in Title I schools.

CAMPUS CRIME: A student is arrested with a loaded gun at Pinellas' Lakewood High. * About 200 students at Volusia's Deland High are left without classrooms after vandals fill the rooms with glass shards, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reports.

PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE: The Leon school district went beyond state law in creating a form for students to opt out of saying the Pledge in school, the Tallahassee Democrat reports.

CAMPAIGN TRAIL: The Citrus school district rebuts a School Board candidate's claim that drugs are easily available on school campuses, the Citrus County Chronicle reports.

TEACHER DISCIPLINE: A Lee high school football coach is suspended and faces termination for running his own investigation into allegations that some players were involved in a sex scandal on campus, the Fort Myers News-Press reports.

FIRST COME, FIRST SERVED: The Duval school district sells used laptops for $50, the Florida Times-Union reports. …

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Deadline set for venue arguments in Florida's third grade retention suit

During Monday's daylong court hearing on Florida's third-grade retention laws, lawyers for the six sued school districts repeatedly complained that the case should have been heard locally and not in Leon County.

As the proceedings progressed, the lawyers filed a complaint in the First District Court of Appeal, asking for a mandate that Judge Karen Gievers rule on their motion to dismiss the case based on their venue challenge.

On Wednesday, the First DCA gave the plaintiffs a day to respond.

"Plaintiffs/Respondents shall have until 3pm on Thursday, August 25, 2016, by which to file a response to the Defendants/Petitioners' Emergency Petition for Writ of Mandamus, putting particular focus on the fact that none of the Plaintiffs/Respondents nor any of the non-state Defendants/Petitioners reside in or have their headquarters within this District," the court stated in its order.

Both sides continued to wait for Gievers' decision on the parents' request to halt their children's required repeat of third grade. Her decision could have long term implications on the state's social promotion rules that undergird Florida's education accountability model.

Stay tuned.

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Operation Elevate

Chief of Schools Harrison Peters at Potter Elementary on the first day of school. Superintendent Jeff Eakins described "a heavy lift" to fill teacher vacancies at Potter, where all students now have certified teachers.


Chief of Schools Harrison Peters at Potter Elementary on the first day of school. Superintendent Jeff Eakins described "a heavy lift" to fill teacher vacancies at Potter, where all students now have certified teachers.

Hillsborough superintendent Jeff Eakins updated the School Board Tuesday on the district's seven high-needs Elevate schools. We'll post regular updates too, as the district has pledged to improve education at these seven long-struggling schools.

For starters:

Sulphur Springs K-8 School has a multi-level "house" system, as seen in the Harry Potter books and, closer to home, at Franklin Boys Preparatory School. The system is designed to encourage students to take more responsibility for the school and their behavior. "Each house has a color, a crest, a chant," Eakins said.

Potter Elementary is now sufficiently staffed, Eakins said. Although Potter's principal told The Tampa Bay Times on the first year that there were five teacher vacancies, Eakins said that on the second day, "every single student was being taught by a certified teacher." He did not give details, but described "a heavy lift" by Donell Underdue, the new area superintendent. (Districtwide, there were still 180 teacher vacancies at last count.)  

Fourth graders and fifth graders at Potter will care for a greenhouse that will be built on Aug. 29. …

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Pasco parents prepare for school rezonings

News that several Pasco County schools could have new attendance boundaries next fall has perked up parents in several communities.

As soccer fields and coffee shops, not to mention on social media, people have begun chatting about what might happen to their children if their neighborhoods are zoned into different schools.

The highest level of concern so far appears to be in the Trinity area, where two Facebook groups have popped up to keep track of the details as they emerge. So far, there's been little to do except wring hands, as school district officials have not published any documents or convened any boundary committees.

With little information to go on, parents have begun sending emails to the superintendent's office, saying they want to remain in the Mitchell High feeder pattern. With its enrollment again surging, Mitchell is likely to get new boundaries, with some students sent to other high schools that are far below their capacity.

One group suggested the district first audit Mitchell's student registrations, to determine if all students actually live in the existing zone or have an approved choice application into the school. …

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Florida education news: Turnarounds, court cases, classroom supplies and more

TURNAROUNDS: Pasco's Hudson Elementary seeks the needed formula to overcome years of poor performance.

IN THE COURTS: Florida Matters discusses key education issues in Florida's courtrooms. * Florida families are still waiting for a ruling in their challenge of the state's third-grade retention law, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

CLASSROOM SUPPLIES: South Florida teachers subsidize their classroom budgets with crowdsourcing or their own money, the Miami New Times reports.

PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE: A Tallahassee man's rant against a Leon school's pledge opt-out permission form goes viral, AOL reports. * The district drops the form amid the hue and cry, the Tallahassee Democrat reports.

DRESS CODE: Volusia district officials proclaim nearly universal compliance with their new student uniform mandate, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reports.

CONSTRUCTION FUNDS: Manatee School Board members discuss how to pay for the district's maintenance and construction needs, the Bradenton Herald reports. * The Polk School Board is weighing options for a local sales tax, the Ledger reports. …

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