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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

ICYMI: Florida education roundup, week of Aug. 23

Times file photo

The past week in Florida education found Pinellas district officials defending against accusations of creating Failure Factories, state Board of Education members calling for changes to class size rules, and parents and students continuing to press the testing opt-out message. Here's our roundup of the highlights. For a steady stream of Florida education news, keep visiting Gradebook and our revamped Education home page. If you'd like to receive this roundup in your email 12 hours before it publishes, send an email to

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How likely is it for Florida to move to a national test model?, Jeffrey S. Solochek
Much has been made in recent days about comments Florida senators Don Gaetz and John Legg have made regarding the "Seminole Solution" to state testing -- that is, a switch from state to national exams for accountability. Lawmakers look to ditch state exams, Politico Florida reported. Key lawmakers like idea of dumping state exams, the Orlando Sentinel added. Advocates of testing reform celebrated such sensibility. Legg cautioned against raising expectations too high. …

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Eckerd College rates among the top 10 'most zen schools'

People have always known about the relaxed vibe at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, but now it's confirmed., which bills itself as “the No. 1 global community for college women,” has ranked Eckerd as one of the nation's 10 “most zen schools.” Eckerd drew the No. 9 spot.

The website takes note of Eckerd's “amazing waterfront location” and the way it “promotes student health through fitness classes like yoga, pilates and tai chi, plentiful annual wellness education events and a financial incentive for students and faculty who register for local fitness events – think 5Ks and triathlons.”

Folks at the small liberal arts college make no bones about its reputation, sometimes referring to the school as “Camp Eckerd.” Nowhere is that feel more evident than during commencement week, when many students rise to accept their degrees in bare feet and the school holds its annual pet graduation. …

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How do you reach across the generational divide and not fall flat?

As schools opened across Florida this week, I was struck by a certain moment at Greco Middle School in Hillsborough County. Eighth grade history teacher Ryan Lynn was trying to connect with his students -- trying to build that classroom community, create relationships (the “Fourth R” of education) the way so many teachers are trained to do in the opening days of the school year.

“You guys are in eighth grade now,” he told them. “You need to be on fleek.” Okay, I had to look it up. On fleek -- it means on point or perfect, plus something to do with eyebrows that I find difficult to define. Way to go, Mr. Lynn. You bravely reached across the generational divide to light a spark with your students. And they rewarded you with … a mixed reaction. Some students laughed. Others stared back stone-faced. One boy looked down and muttered, “Please don’t do that again.” (I have been there, sir) …

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Cows to graze Pasco school district land while waiting for future campus

Times file photo

The Pasco County School Board bought 20 acres on U.S. 41 at Sunterra Drive less than a year ago, in anticipation of another population boom in Land O'Lakes.

A series of small housing developments in the area led officials to recommend banking the land, at a cost of $1.65 million, for a future elementary school. 

Since the purchase, the reopening of Sanders Memorial Elementary (5 miles to the south of the site) has eased the burden on Connerton Elementary (about 3 miles to the east of the site).

Now deputy superintendent Ray Gadd has advised School Board members that, "due to budget constraints and a slow-down in student growth, it is not anticipated that the elementary school will be developed here for several years."

So the administration has recommended the board lease out the land for agricultural purposes. The proposed contract, which goes to the board on Tuesday, would allow South Branch Ranch Inc. to use the land for livestock grazing and other agricultural purposes, without any permanent changes to the property.

The group would pay $400 a year. …

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Tampa area school districts wait on weather to make school closure announcements

Tropical Storm Erika tracking map, 11 a.m. Friday


Tropical Storm Erika tracking map, 11 a.m. Friday

As Tropical Storm Erika continues to waver along its path, it appears to take a more westward trajectory toward the Tampa Bay region.

Area school district officials have their eyes on the storm, but don't plan to decide whether to close schools until Erika's direction becomes more certain.

Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco district spokeswomen said that parents should not expect information until Sunday, unless the storm picks up pace and demands earlier attention.

"We're working with the emergency operations center and going to go with their direction," Hillsborough district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said. "By Sunday afternoon we will let parents know what is going on."

The Pinellas school district has posted a brief list of frequently asked questions for parents to refer to as they prepare for a possible storm. It makes clear that school closure remains "highly dependent upon the storm's forecast over the next 24-36 hours."

All districts plan to use multiple forms of communication, including social media, web sites, robo calls and public announcements to get the word out when a decision finally comes. …

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Florida testing validity study report to come next week

All of you waiting anxiously for Alpine Testing Solution's verdict on the Florida Standards Assessments validity will have to sweat it out a little longer. The firm, which had planned to submit its final report today (Friday), has requested and received a short extension.

"If we get it on Monday, then we'll make our announcement on Monday," Florida Department of Education spokeswoman Meghan Collins told the Gradebook. "They have until the 1st (of September) by law."

The study aims to examine six key areas of the state tests, including whether the questions aligned to Florida Standards and whether the administration was reliable. Reports of computer log-in problems, among other troubles, were widespread during the spring testing window, raising concerns across Florida about whether the results should be used for a variety of accountability measures. Those include teacher evaluations, school grades and student promotion, some of which have started to happen already. …

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Florida education news: T-shirts, testing, dress code and more

CHURCH AND STATE: Criticism rises as 2,000 Hillsborough teachers are given t-shirts advertising a local mega-church.

REMOVED: Hernando's school transportation director is pulled from duty while officials conduct an undisclosed investigation.

TESTING: Every day will have some testing occur in Miami-Dade schools, the Miami Herald reports.

DRESS CODE: The Palm Beach School Board considers telling school volunteers and staff how to dress, the Palm Beach Post reports.

NO SOLUTION: Efforts to fix Palm Beach's student busing problems fall flat, the Palm Beach Post reports.

INJURED: Sixteen Pensacola High students are hurt when a dump truck flips their school bus, the Pensacola News-Journal reports.

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Just a shirt?

A reader shared this flyer, which went home in a student's bookbag.

A reader shared this flyer, which went home in a student's bookbag.

You might read today's story about the Idlewild Baptist Church spirit shirt giveaway and say, it's just a shirt.

But sometimes it isn't.

A reader shared this green flyer that came home in a child's bookbag Thursday. At the family's request, we deleted the school name.

Are there more?

Call Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 if you are concerned.

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Relocated Pasco middle school copes with moldy portable classrooms

Pasco County's Bayonet Point Middle School, considered but never proven to be a "sick school" as many teachers there contracted cancer over the years, closed down this fall for a complete renovation. 

Most of the students relocated to Fivay High School for the duration of the project.

The move has generated a new set of concerns, though, as three of the five portable classrooms that students and teachers were supposed to use were deemed unusable just days before the start of classes. The culprit: Mold and poor air quality.

Teachers had to move their classes to the media center, gym and other available spaces away from the high school classes. The portables aren't expected to be ready for another another week.

"They've been creative with where they're putting them," area superintendent Todd Cluff said. "It's a pretty crowded campus."

Parents got a letter explaining the situation on Tuesday.

The problem cropped up over the summer break.

"We were pushing extremely hard over the summer to get the portables moved," maintenance director Mark Fox explained. "They got split apart during the move." …

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Pasco West Zephyrhills Elementary to get new principal

Two weeks after learning it would lose its principal, West Zephyrhills Elementary School has a new one.

Five people applied for the post, and Charlene Tidd, the school's assistant principal, came out on top.

She has been recommended to take over the job, which came vacant after Wendy Lane transferred to Woodland Elementary.

Tidd, a Zephyrhills resident, has worked for Pasco schools since 1989. Her appointment goes to the School Board on Tuesday, and she would begin that day.

The district still has one more principal post to fill, at River Ridge High School. 

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How likely is it for Florida to move to a national test model?

Much has been made in recent days about comments Florida senators Don Gaetz and John Legg have made regarding the "Seminole Solution" to state testing -- that is, a switch from state to national exams for accountability.

Lawmakers look to ditch state exams, Politico Florida reported. Key lawmakers like idea of dumping state exams, the Orlando Sentinel added.

Advocates of testing reform celebrated such sensibility.

Legg cautioned against raising expectations too high. He said his Education Committee will have hearings to explore what it would take to turn this proposal into reality. But nothing is likely to happen soon.

"We are in year two of a three year contract. It is highly improbable for us to make any transition" while the agreement is in place, Legg, a Pasco County Republican, told the Gradebook. "We don't want our teachers to do three different assessments in three years."

Once that contract with AIR expires, Legg said, any testing firm can bid for the business. Whichever company gets the next deal will have to provide exams that adhere to Florida's standards. The 1981 Debra P. v Turlington case requires nothing less, Legg noted. …

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Florida education news: Growth, tutoring, testing and more

OVERFLOW: Manatee School Board members discuss how to handle growth in areas where schools are near or at capacity, the Bradenton Herald reports.

EXTRA HELP: A nonprofit organization offers free tutoring to students in a dozen schools in Lake, Sumter and Marion counties, the Daily Commercial reports.

CHARTER SCHOOLS: A Duval charter school closes its doors amid financial problems and a poor graduation rate, the Florida Times-Union reports.

TESTING: Florida education commissioner Pam Stewart won't reveal her plans if a study deems the Florida Standards Assessments invalid, Politico Florida reports.

WHAT NOT TO WEAR: The Palm Beach School Board looks into a dress code for parent volunteers, the Palm Beach Post reports.

REROUTED: Palm Beach schools revamp their bus routes after nearly two weeks of transportation troubles, the Palm Beach Post reports.

LAWSUITS: A former Orange teacher sues the district claiming she was fired for her association with black people, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

ON THE TRAIL: Some Pensacola area high school students get to question Jeb Bush at a town hall, the Pensacola News-Journal reports. …

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Pinellas touts its career academies

Two days after the kickoff of a new school year, the Pinellas Education Foundation and officials from the Pinellas County school district Wednesday celebrated advances in the county’s career and technical education.

The three-pronged event held in Largo recognized five high schools as "academies of distinction," celebrated the school district’s partnership with Ford Motors’ Next Generation Learning, and focused on superintendent Michael Grego’s report on career and technical education.

“There’s been some bad press recently,” said foundation chairwoman Cathy Collins. “We all know because we’re intimately involved with the educational process that there is a lot of good going on and we are making material difference, and you will hear about that today.”

U.S. Rep. David Jolly, sporting a pair of crutches, spoke briefly. He joked that his injury was caused by wrestling House Speaker John Boehner and poked at his colleagues in Tallahassee, saying they made Washington, D.C., look functional. …

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Pasco area superintendent to take early retirement

Beth Brown's past 24 years working in Pasco County school have been, in her own word, "amazing."

But "the rest of my life beckons," Brown said.

So she has put in for early retirement, effective Oct. 1. She told superintendent Kurt Browning on Monday, letting Facebook friends know on Tuesday.

Brown praised Browning and his team as "fantastic," and said she would in some ways love to stay and continue the "right, good work" they are doing. Family commitments are rising, though, and she wants to be able to dedicate her time.

"For the next three months, I'm not going to do anything but have fun, enjoy family and friends," she said. "I have no plans to work for anybody."

If retirement gets boring, Brown added with a laugh, "I can always come back and do expulsion hearings for the district, or mentor new principals."

Under four superintendents, Brown, 56, has worked as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, middle schools supervisor, learning community executive director and area superintendent. She helped create the Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce and open John Long Middle School, among other things.

Her last day in the office will be Sept. 25.

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Florida Board of Education members want another look at class size rules

Discussing legislative priorities for the coming session, some Florida Board of Education members renewed their desire to see the 2002 class size amendment scaled back in its application.

Calling the law "foolish," board member Gary Chartrand said he would urge lawmakers to take steps to make it easier for schools to measure class size as a school-wide average rather than a classroom count. He suggested a measure to apply penalties at the school average level -- simiilar to a bill that did not make its way through the spring 2015 session.

"I've been talking about this since I came on the board four years ago," Chartrand said. "I want to make sure I'm vocal on my issue."

He said the board could add the idea to its legislative priority list, or deal with the item individually. Other board members said they would like more information.

"I want to be very clear, at this moment we are all in agreement that we'd like to hear more," chairwoman Marva Johnson said.

The board asked staff to bring more details to its next meeting in September. …

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