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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Hillsborough teacher takes a parting shot at the evaluation system

After 18 years with the Hillsborough County school district, Gaither High School reading teacher Michaela Meyers turned in her resignation recently, citing frustration with the Gates-funded Empowering Effective Teachers evaluation system.

EET, now in its fifth year, has been praised for reducing the turnover in new teachers, who benefit from mentors.

But longtime teachers have not always embraced it. The evaluations by peer teachers and administrators use a rubric inspired by educational scholar Charlotte Danielson. Combined with a value-added score, they yield a numerical assessment and, in some cases, a call for corrective action. One teacher, Mary Borne, has a pending lawsuit because she had two "unsatisfactory" ratings, leaving the district no choice under state law but to fire her. Critics of EET say that although the teachers can write their reflections on the process, there is no grievance procedure if they are dissatisfied with the results. Meyers was told she needed a support team and action plan.

She disagrees, and here is some of what she included in her letter to principal Thomas Morrill: …

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Pasco school district finally hires career-technical education director

Pasco County school district leaders have talked for years about the need to ramp up efforts to provide more career and technical training opportunities for high school students. The district's mantra these days, after all, has been to make children college, career and life ready.

Despite that desire, though, the district has gone without a career-technical education director for nearly half a year. The HR department advertised and readvertised nationally, seeking the best candidates to replace Rob Aguis, who returned to the principal job at Marchman Technical Education Center as it undergoes a $15 million overhaul.

In the end, the district landed the department's No. 2, who had been overseeing the work on an interim basis all along. …

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Hillsborough district will appoint a new principal and settle two employee lawsuits

The Hillsborough County school district, pending board approval Tuesday, will settle two employee lawsuits for a total of $10,050.

Elena Casas sued the district in early 2013, alleging the district violated her rights under the Family Medical Leave Act. Casas also accused the district of discriminating against her based on a disability when she was denied a request for a light duty assignment, according to a litigation summary from the district's law firm.

Casas left the district in 2010, after her leave expired, according to the report. When she tried to return later that year, the district said she was not eligible for a teaching position because she had not passed an examination she needed to obtain a professional educator's certificate.

Her case is being settled for $8,000.

Maria Castillo alleged in her February 2014 lawsuit that the district fired her in retaliation for filing a workers compensation claim.

The two sides are settling this case for $2,050.

Also on Tuesday, the board is scheduled to vote on a new principal for McDonald Elementary School. Gregory Cannella, who last held the position, is now the district's supervisor of technology training.

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Florida Education Association files amended complaint in voucher lawsuit

Rejected in its first effort, the Florida Education Association has revised its complaint against the state's newest school voucher program just ahead of a pending deadline.

In its amended complaint, the teachers union adds some Miami-Dade public school parents as plaintiffs. A judge dismissed an earlier version, stating the complaining teacher had no standing to file the case. The union lawyers argue standing this way:

"The significant expansion of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program provided for as part of Chapter 2014-184 will result in additional funds being diverted from the public schools (including from the Miami-Dade County Public Schools and the Lee County Public Schools) to private schools, thus further undermining the quality of education provided to the children of plaintiffs Green, Monsalve, and Diasio, and further undermining the ability of public school teachers like plaintiff Faasse to provide a high-quality education."

The FEA is asking the court to find the program, which currently has about 1,000 participants, unconstitutional.

Redefined, a blog run by the organization that oversees the voucher program, is offering its views on the latest developments here.

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Pasco School Board looks at superintendent replacement rule, just in case

The Pasco County school district remains the largest in the country to elect rather than appoint its superintendent. That status gives the local School Board very little say, outside the ballot box, on who its chief executive will be.

Even, so, the board this week began to carve out a tiny piece of control for itself, in the odd instance where the governor might suspend the superintendent and not appoint a new one.

A new policy up for consideration would allow the board to designate a temporary, interim superintendent until the governor fills the vacant position. It was the first of several policy recommendations the board took up during a workshop, and sitting superintendent Kurt Browning -- who does not face any threat of replacement -- was quick to notice.

"I don’t like this one," he said to laughter. "I mean, they might want to exercise this one."

Executive director for administration Kevin Shibley told the board that the proposal, though limited, would provide for continuous leadership until the governor could execute his appointment duty, which past governors have not always done immediately. …

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Florida education news: Class size, testing, truancy and more

CLASS SIZE: Pinellas district officials stand behind their use of substitute teachers to lower class sizes.

TESTING: The Alachua School Board is the latest to adopt a resolution urging a delay in the high stakes associated with Florida's tests, the Gainesville Sun reports. • The Broward School Board also approved an anti-testing resolution, the Sun-Sentinel reports. • The Volusia School Board's similar stance should be a wake-up call to Tallahassee, the Daytona Beach News-Journal editorializes.

TRUANCY: Eighteen Duval parents are arrested for allowing their children to repeatedly skip school, the Florida Times-Union reports.

ENGLISH LEARNERS: The Manatee school district fails to meet federal standards for the instruction of English-language learners, the Bradenton Herald reports.

VOUCHERS: Florida pro-voucher supporters launch an ad campaign to sway public opinion as a lawsuit over the program continues, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

SECURITY: The Lee School Board will pay the full cost of placing resource officers in elementary schools, unlike in past years, the Fort Myers News-Press reports. …

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Florida School Boards Association leader announces retirement

For years, Wayne Blanton has been the face and the voice of Florida school boards. He's advocated loudly in the Legislature, and helped many boards select their superintendents.

His days in that role are now numbered. He announced Tuesday his plan to retire just before the start of the 2015 legislative session. Here's what he said in his email to education leaders around the state:

"It has been my honor and privilege to represent school boards and school board members for the last 40 years. My professional career has been dedicated to representing public education and assisting local school boards to be the “Voice of Education” throughout Florida. The friendships I have made and the professional relationships that have been developed over the past 40 years will never be replaced or forgotten. Upon deep personal and professional reflection, I will be retiring at the end of February, 2015. …

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Pinellas hasn't backed off using substitutes for class size

In its rush to meet class size, the Pinellas County school system hired substitute teachers to work as co-teachers in elementary and high schools.

As the Times wrote last week, the state doesn't prohibit the use of substitute teachers. It does, however, say that co-teachers must have equal responsibility for planning and delivering instruction to students in the classroom. Pinellas made it clear in its internal memos that the substitutes wouldn't be expected to perform the same duties as regular classroom teachers, despite the state's direction.

Superintendent Mike Grego made no apologies for the approach during Tuesday's work session with the board. He insisted that the district was doing everything possible to follow the law - and "that's what we'll continue to do." He said hiring substitute teachers caused less disruption for students than other methods, such as hiring a new teacher and splitting existing classes.

"This is a far better process that we're going through," he said. …

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"Drop out" too negative, Pinellas officials say

The Pinellas County school system would like to get away from the term "drop out."

It's negative, it carries a stigma and some parents don't understand why they get contacted by dropout prevention services when their children haven't, in fact, dropped out. Barbara Hires, an area superintendent, has proposed a "nice, catchy phrase" instead.

The phrase? Educational alternative services.

If that doesn't seem all that catchy to you, remember it's a school system. This is the land of acronyms and education speak. We have ELL (English language learners) and ESE (Exceptional Student Education) and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math,) among others. 

Hires said the district will update its brochures and websites with the re-branding effort. "This is a positive thing for students," she said.

Pinellas isn't the only place that likes to steer away from the negative. The state Department of Education doesn't refer to "retentions." Students who have been held back a grade are called "non-promotions."

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Jeb Bush's foundation calls for fewer, better tests in Florida

You know that concern over testing in Florida has hit its boiling point when Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education issues a letter to parents with the headline "Fewer Tests. Better Tests."

Foundation executive director Patricia Levesque wrote that her organization has not stopped supporting assessments to provide an "honest, objective report" of how kids are doing in school. That's what the former governor promoted as key to accountability, after all.

She also stressed that the state of Florida doesn't really mandate all that many tests -- just some end-of-course exams and the annual FCAT, to be replaced by the Florida Standards Assessment.

After all the defenses, though, Levesque reached the point that many others have been shouting for weeks and months now: "While I strongly believe in tests, I agree there is such a thing as too many tests," she wrote.

Maybe it's districts' fault. Maybe it's because of the state. Bottom line, though, Levesque suggested, the number must drop. …

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Spanish language pilot proposed in Pinellas schools

Children could learn Spanish outside of the regular school day as part of a proposed pilot program in Pinellas County Schools.

The before and after school "academies" could start at 10 elementary schools as soon as November or January. Each would be just one day a week, but with an emphasis on students practicing at home. Participation would be voluntary. A working name for the pilot: SPLASH or Spanish Language Academy for School and Home.

In many ways, the initiative is part of ongoing efforts by superintendent Mike Grego to extend the school day and year. Grego has been aggressive in starting voluntary programs before and after school and during the summer. SPLASH has been modeled after successful before and after programs in science, technology, engineering and math or STEM. 

Younger children learn foreign languages more easily than older students, yet there is little time to add classes into an already packed elementary school schedule, Grego said. That's "always been a struggle," he said. Before and after school programs could be the answer, allowing students to participate if they want without a strain on the regular schedule. …

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Florida education news: Politics, absenteeism, testing resolutions and more

RAISES: Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia promises district bus drivers raises and better training.

RACES: Too much politics, not enough policy discussion in Hillsborough School Board races, the Times editorializes. • Pro-voucher groups start pouring money into Sarasota School Board races, the Herald-Tribune reports.

DIPLOMAS: A Pensacola virtual education program helps inmates earn their high school diplomas, the Pensacola News-Journal reports.

ENGLISH LEARNERS: Florida continues its dispute with the federal government over accountability and students still learning English, State Impact Florida reports.

ATTENDANCE: Chronic absenteeism is affecting some Lake County schools, the Daily Commercial reports.

TESTING: The Broward School Board prepares to join a growing group adopting resolutions against high-stakes testing in Florida, the Sun-Sentinel reports.

PROJECT MONEY: Escambia teachers win grants for STEM projects the district can't otherwise afford, the Pensacola News-Journal reports.

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FSU trustees sign off on John Thrasher contract

Florida State University's Board of Trustees approved John Thrasher's contract today, including a $430,000 base salary.

Read more on The Buzz.


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Parent info sessions coming up in Pinellas

This is that time of year when we at the Gradebook start reminding you with annoying regularity about parent information sessions in the Pinellas County school system. Special programs, such as fundamental schools and magnets, are notoriously difficult to get into - and the application period is coming up in January - so here is your opportunity to get informed.

Three information sessions are scheduled in November:

6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., Nov. 4, Boca Ciega High School, 924 58th St S, Gulfport

6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., Nov. 6 at Countryside High, 3000 State Road 580, Clearwater

6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., Nov. 10 at Pinellas Park High, 6305 118th Ave. N, Largo

There also are two information fairs in November to give families a chance to speak with school representatives. Those include:

6 p.m. to 8 p.m., Nov. 13, Gibbs High, 850 34th St S. St. Petersburg

9 a.m. to noon, Nov. 15, Pinellas Park High, 6305 118th Ave. N, Largo

Discovery nights, or open houses, also are coming up. Most are between mid-November and early January, just ahead of the application period. For more information, visit here.

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Florida education news: Grade retention, school grades, taxes and more

RETENTION: Pinellas elementary schools stop holding back struggling students in the youngest grades.

POLITICS AND STANDARDS: Anti-Common Core activists urge support of Gov. Rick Scott despite his limited moves to kill the standards.

ACCOUNTABILITY: Bay district leaders urge the state to skip school grading for a year, the Panama City News Herald reports.

TAXES: The Marion School Board asks voters to approve a local property tax to help support music, art, physical education and other underfunded areas, the Ocala Star-Banner reports. • Monroe voters will decide whether to extend a sales tax for school construction needs, the Keynoter reports. • A well-known television personality helps promote Orange County's school tax referendum, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

DOUBLING DOWN: Sarasota high schools begin offering longer, more intensive math instruction to students who have trouble mastering the state's new expectations, the Herald-Tribune reports.

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