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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Florida education news: Security, reading, charter schools and more

SCHOOL SECURITY: The Pinellas schools police department decides to return the military assault rifles it bought from the federal government. • The Manatee school district cancels its contract for armed school guards, saying it violated the Sunshine law during the selection process, the Herald Tribune reports.

READING AND WRITING: Students at Pasco Rushe Middle create children's books they then take to share with kindergartners at nearby Oakstead Elementary.

CHARTER SCHOOLS: A new report on charter schools by an advocacy group ranks Florida's effort in the middle of the pack, the Orlando Sentinel reports. • The Palm Beach School Board bristles at the city of West Palm Beach seeks extensions to complete its charter school contract proposal, the Palm Beach Post reports. • The St. Johns School Board rejects a charter applicant for the second time, the St. Augustine Record reports.

VOUCHERS: A bipartisan coalition calls upon the Florida Education Association to drop its lawsuit challening the state's voucher program, the Florida Times-Union reports.

R.I.P.: Lee School Board member Tom Scott dies, the Fort Myers News-Press reports.

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Bay Point Elementary cleared in cheating investigation

District officials concluded that no cheating took place at Bay Point Elementary last school year. State officials accepted the results of the district-run investigation and gave the school a C grade for 2014.

Superintendent Mike Grego told the state that "no wrongdoing or testing irregularities were discovered." In a letter sent to parents today, principal Felita Grant announced the C grade and said that the state "fully endorses all components of our testing protocols." The letter made no other mention of the investigation, focusing instead on plans for the new school year. 

The state Department of Education flagged the magnet school after a large number of fourth-grade students turned in math tests that were so similar as to be statistically improbable. On multiple-choice tests, it's not unusual for students to give the same answer if it's the correct answer. But about 30 students were giving the same wrong answers on the same questions, according to the state.

A state analysis concluded the likelihood that students produced such similar tests under normal conditions was less than 1 in 1 trillion.

District officials interviewed students and staff about the unusual results. …

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Biometrics leaders worry Florida law is just the beginning

Earlier this year, Florida lawmakers banned school districts from collecting student biometric information, such as fingerprints. The move came amid rising concerns about how much personal data the government might keep about children and their families, prompted by Common Core fears.

Now leaders in the Real ID industry worried that Florida is yet again on the leading edge of change about to sweep other states.

“Uber-privacy folks have a lot of support in the states and if this becomes an issue with the ACLU then you will see a significant ramp up,” Janice Kephart of the Secure Identity and Biometrics Association told Secure ID News.

Florida often sets trends for such legislation and it could do so again, she suggested. "You have a base of folks that are organizing and it’s troublesome. We have a job to educate on the reality of the situation.”

Read more here.

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Pasco's Wiregrass Ranch High students to get earlier wakeup call

Forget later start times.

Students at Pasco County's Wiregrass Ranch High School soon will have to set their alarm clocks a little earlier to make it to class on time.

Wiregrass Ranch, in a fast-growing section of Wesley Chapel, continues to burst at the seams despite a 2010-11 attendance zone shift aimed at offering it relief. Average daily attendance there after a month of classes was just over 2,300 in the classrooms built for about 1,700 students.

A proposal to let kids attend classes from home twice a week to ease the load fell apart due to a lack of parental interest. But now it's so crowded that students struggle to make it to their classrooms on time.

The answer? "It has become necessary to increase the length of the passing periods between classes to allow the students extra time to reach their next class," district officials stated in a document going to the School Board on Tuesday.

Why the School Board? Because the added minute per passing period means extending the school day by six minutes -- five in the morning, one in the afternoon. That would mean starting at 7:25 a.m. instead of 7:30 a.m. …

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Florida education news: Graduation ceremonies, vaccinations, Trojan Man and more

GRADUATION DAY: The Hillsborough school district reorganizes its high school graduation plans to make the events more pleasant for graduates and guests.

FLORIDA MODEL: Michigan leaders look at Florida's education efforts as they consider ways to improve their state's system, Bridge Michigan reports.

SCHOOL SAFETY: Duval school officials discover a student with a weapon on campus for the second time in a week, the Florida Times-Union reports.

HEALTH MATTERS: A growing number of Florida children return to school without getting required vaccinations, WPTV reports.

JUSTIFIED: An administrative judge upholds the Manatee district's dismissal of an assistant principal, the Bradenton Herald reports.

NO SHOWS: Lake parents show up to vent at their School Board, which fails to get a quorum and cancels, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

DRESS CODE: An Orange County high school student gets in trouble for wearing a Trojan Man costume to school to espouse a safe-sex message, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

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Tinker expansion gets thumbs-up as MacDill charter idea becomes a memory in Hillsborough

Board members were shown an artist's conception of the expanded Tinker Elementary School

Board members were shown an artist's conception of the expanded Tinker Elementary School

The plan for a charter school at MacDill Air Force Base wasn’t just put to rest at Tuesday’s Hillsborough County School Board meeting: It was stomped on with boots.

Even though the proposal was withdrawn before the meeting even started, a contingent from the base community turned out to praise a plan the district offered in its place: Expanding Tinker Elementary School, which is on the base, to include grades 6 to 8.

“The School Board and the superintendent have never, ever wavered from their commitments,” said retired Brig. Gen. Arthur “Chip” Diehl, now a board member for a community group called the MacDill Military Alliance. 

Alliance president John Schueler also spoke in favor of the Tinker expansion. "This has been one of those things that has not been easy, but the conclusion has been satisfactory to the students that will be at MacDill Air Force Base," he said. 

The show of support follows an earlier public relations campaign charter supporters mounted in their two attempts to win approval for a K-8 school.

Supporters of the charter included the base’s former commander, Col. Scott DeThomas. They also cited a survey showing most base families wanted a charter school. …

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Promotions and appointments in Hillsborough

Gregory Cannella

Gregory Cannella

Gregory Cannella, principal of McDonald Elementary School, has been named Supervisor of Technology Training for the Hillsborough County school district. Cannella joined the district in 1997 as a music teacher at McDonald. He was assistant principal of Doby Elementary before he was named principal of McDonaldin 2011.


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Pasco district cracks top 50 largest U.S. school systems

The Pasco County school district, which for years before the recession was one of the nation's fastest growing, is back on the rise.

According to American School & University, Pasco was one of 10 "significant growth districts" in the past year, alongside Gwinnett County, Ga., Denver, Colo., and Jefferson County, Ky. All experienced enrollment increases of 3 percent or more.

The jump pushed Pasco onto the list of the nation's 50-largest districts for the first time, right at No. 50. It had been 54 the year before.

It's not even close to the biggest district in Florida, though. Ten other Sunshine State districts came in ahead of Pasco, with Miami-Dade at the top. With 354,236 students, Miami-Dade ranked fourth nationally.

Also in the top 50 were Broward (6), Hillsborough (8), Orange (10), Palm Beach (12), Duval, (20), Pinellas (26), Polk (30), Lee (34) and Brevard (47). Of those, Pinellas and Brevard showed enrollment declines.

Some critics have tried in the past to shrink Florida's districts, particularly these huge ones, but lawmakers have not gone that direction.

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Hillsborough school board meets at 3

The issue of a charter school at MacDill Air Force Base is dead -- or at least dormant -- for now. But other business awaits the Hillsborough County School Board when it meets at 3 p.m., including ongoing improvements in the transportation system and stalled progress in a task force that's addressing behavior issues affecting African American students. Live tweets are here.

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Pasco school copes with bat droppings

Coach Pennye Garcia noticed the unbearable smell outside Sunlake High School's media center immediately upon her return to school in August.

Soon came the hoarseness and coughing. Before long, she told officials in an e-mail, she felt ill like never before. 

Within two weeks, the cause suspect became clear: Bat guano.

Late last week, principal Steve Williams sent out the word that Sunlake's "bat situation," which numbered about 50-100 creatures at its height, was coming under control. 

"Now that the specific species of bat has been determined (Brazilian Free Tailed), we are honing our removal and relocation process," Williams wrote, noting the school had "no recent activity."

He added that no bats are being killed in the process, and looked for the silver lining, too: The school's science department turned the situation into a learning experience for students. …

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Florida education news: Testing, school closures, American flags and more

TESTING: Florida education commissioner Pam Stewart says she has little authority to meet the testing-related requests that superintendents, school board members, parent groups and others are making.

CHARTER SCHOOLS: A group withdraws its application to open a charter school at MacDill Air Force Base.

SECRETS: The Brevard School Board declines to reveal which schools it might close if a tax referendum fails, Florida Today reports.

THERE OUGHT TO BE A LAW: A group of Brevard high school students wants the Legislature to require all government-purchased American flags be U.S.-made, Florida Today reports.

CLASSROOM COPIES: Some Duval parents raise concerns that their children aren't being provided assigned novels, the Florida Times-Union reports.

NEW LEADERSHIP: Two Duval schools get new principals six weeks into the academic year, the Florida Times-Union reports.

DIGITAL LEARNING: Bay schools increasingly use more classroom technology, learning as they go, the Panama City News Herald reports.

GROWTH: Volusia enrollment sees its biggest rise in years, causing some classroom crowding, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reports. …

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Pasco school district lifts hiring freeze

Pasco County elementary schools are once again free to hire teachers.

The district imposed a hiring freeze at the start of the academic year, while watching to see how enrollment spread across the district. Officials did not want to add employees at campuses that needed them without making sure that under-enrolled schools did not need to lose positions. See how average daily membership at the schools looked after a month of classes here.

Now that the 20-day count has passed, the HR department gave principals the go-ahead to advertise and hire, unless given instructions otherwise on specific jobs. Several elementary schools, including Connerton, Hudson, Double Branch and Cypress, have listed positions available.

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Florida testing debate moves to State Board of Education

Hillsborough schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia brought mounting concerns over state tests to the Florida Board of Education on Monday, saying districts aren't ready to administer them.

She called for a one-year respite in state school grades. She said students also should be held harmless from the penalties attached to this year's results. And she proposed reducing the percentage of a teacher's evaluation that is tied directly to assessments.

Elia didn't question the need for testing. But she and other superintendents, she said, have "grave concerns" over the system in its current transition.

Board members, meeting for the first time since protests over testing intensified, did not respond to her directly. But commissioner Pam Stewart did suggest later that she wasn't worried about the state's move to a new model. It survived the switch from FCAT to FCAT 2.0, after all, she said. "I think we can, and will, get through these changes."

Read the rest of the story here.

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Report takes aim at Scott's education funding record

new report from the left-leaning American Bridge takes Republican governors to task for cutting education funding.

It includes a section on Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who slashed $1.3 billion from the education budget during his first year in office. 

Scott has since restored most of that funding and unveiled a plan to boost per-student spending to a record high level in 2015. But he continues to feel the heat from Democratic opponent Charlie Crist and progressive groups.

The American Bridge report frames education spending as a political issue that could hurt Scott.

"From Rick Scott and Scott Walker to Sam Brownback, Tom Corbett and more, Republican governors are getting slammed for slashing funds for schools, dealing a blow to their respective reelection bids, while prospective governors like Doug Ducey have promised to do the same," the organization wrote in the introduction. "Locked in tight races, these Tea Party governors are floundering to explain their draconian cuts to concerned constituents by twisting numbers and distorting their records."

The report also includes passages from Florida newspaper editorials.

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Florida Board of Education approves rules for newest voucher program

With almost no discussion, the Florida Board of Education on Monday approved new rules governing the state's newest voucher program.

The Personal Learning Scholarship Account, established in the most recent legislative session, faced a legal challenge as recently as a week ago. But a circuit court judge cleared the path to giving the education money to children with disabilities, allowing the model to move forward.

The department is wasting no time. Administrator Adam Miller told the State Board that more than 3,000 families had already applied, and the first 650 scholarships were set to be distributed "in the next couple of days."

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