Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Six families to defend new state scholarship program

Six families will be in Tallahassee Thursday to make the case for Florida's new scholarships for students with special needs.

The program came under fire earlier this month, after the statewide teachers union filed a lawsuit questioning the way it became law.

The six families are planning an 11 a.m. press conference to say the scholarship program should not be abandoned because of the lawsuit.

"If we're not convenient to their cause then we just don't matter," said Ashli McCall, a certified teacher in Florida and the parent of an autistic child. "We matter."

Other participants will include former Sen. Alfred Lawson, Jr., a Tallahassee Democrat; Allison Aubuchon, of former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education; and Clint Bolick, of Goldwater Institute.

The Goldwater Institute has defended similar school choice programs nationwide.

"These children deserve high-quality educational opportunities that are customized to suit their unique needs, and we will stand up with their families and defend these scholarships from the very people who have failed these students in the public schools,” Bolick said.

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Investigation into possible cheating at Bay Point Elementary continues

Bay Point Elementary in St. Petersburg still is under investigation for possible cheating, district officials said Wednesday.

The state Department of Education flagged the 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.

It's up to the Pinellas County school system to investigate and then forward its results to the state. Until that investigation concludes, Bay Point Elementary will remain without a school grade for 2014. District officials had predicted a C grade for the school.

Octavio Salcedo, testing director, said the investigation could take a couple weeks. Interviews with staff and students still are going on, and the state hasn't set a deadline for the investigation's completion.

The Gradebook will check back in a couple weeks. Stay tuned.

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Is Duval over-suspending black students? The district doesn't know, and finding out will take five weeks and cost $3,000

On his way to becoming superintendent of Florida's sixth largest school system, Nikolai Vitti specialized in turning around some of the worst-performing schools in the state.

A job like that requires attention to detail and a good grasp of how things like race and poverty can affect how students get an education. And it would have taught Vitti that inequities in how discipline is handed out can be one major barrier to learning in low-performing schools.

School discipline often has been a hot topic, with stories like this one in the Washington Post periodically focusing attention on the issue.

The Times is interested in how schools handle discipline, too. As part of a still-ongoing, statewide study of how districts are faring on this front, the newspaper in March asked for basic data from the state's largest districts, including a breakdown of how many students were suspended in the past 15 years and whether they were black, white, Hispanic or some other race.

Most of Florida's largest districts keep this information at the ready, and they're able to consult it to make decisions and gauge how effective their policies are. Not Duval County. …

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Pasco school district works to round out administrative staff

With the new school year fast approaching, Pasco County district leaders continue to fill the handful of administrative posts that remain vacant.

Interviews continue Wednesday for a new Bayonet Point Middle School principal, after the unexpected retirement of longtime leader Mike Asbell, whose last day is Thursday. Todd Cluff, executive director of the northwest county learning community, said the candidates seemed strong, although he would not say whom he might recommend.

The applicants include two locals -- Seven Springs Middle assistant principal Tracie Beerman and Wesley Chapel High assistant principal Shelly Carrino -- and three administrators from outside the county. Two Pinellas educators, Adam Lane of Largo High and Robert Florio of John Hopkins Middle, are seeking the post, along with Lawrence Hinkle, an assistant principal from a New York middle school.

Cluff said he hopes to have a selection this week, although the School Board does not meet again to approve an appointment until Aug. 12. …

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Three Pasco elementary schools to push back final bell for fourth, fifth grades

Fourth- and fifth-graders at Pasco County's Cox, Gulfside and Lacoochee elementary schools will be in school 50 minutes later each day starting in the fall, but their younger schoolmates won't.

Pasco district officials devised the plan to meet a state mandate for extra reading instruction at the 300 elementary schools with the lowest FCAT reading results. They were able to add an hour of reading at the primary level without extending the day, but couldn't make that effort work for the intermediate grades.

Each school will have one set of buses leaving at the same dismissal time as a year ago, and another set departing an hour later. (That's 3:40 p.m. for Cox and Gulfside, and 4:40 p.m. for Lacoochee.) Teachers would get supplemental pay, which still must be negotiated.

Superintendent Kurt Browning said the cost would not exceed $350,000, much less than the $1 million he projected if all grades had to go longer.

School Board members raised few questions about the proposal, after noting they considered it an unfunded state mandate. Their biggest concern centered on making sure parents knew about the change and understood the reasons behind it. …

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Florida education news: Reading, spending, art and more

READING LESSONS: Three Pasco elementary schools will end their days 50 minutes later to add state-mandated reading instruction for fourth and fifth graders. • Parents at one Duval elementary school oppose the state-mandated hour for their children, the Florida Times-Union reports.

SCHOOL BOARD RACES: The candidates for Pinellas School Board District 3 focus on parent involvement and other issues.

BUDGETS: Pinellas includes new programs in its tentative budget. • Hernando officials discuss ten cost-cutting measures as they prepare their spending plan.

IN THE SHADE: Candidates for a Manatee School Board seat criticize dealings between the superintendent and one of the hopefuls, the Bradenton Herald reports.

SPECIAL EDUCATION: The Broward school district examines several recommendations to improve its ESE program, the Sun-Sentinel reports.

NEW SCHOOLS: Several new schools and programs will open in Palm Beach this fall, the Palm Beach Post reports.

THE ARTS: The Marion School Board restores art and music programs to all elementary schools a year after cutting them, the Ocala Star-Banner reports. …

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New teachers are welcomed in Hillsborough Wednesday

New teachers' welcome, 2013

New teachers' welcome, 2013

Close to 1,000 new teachers have been training all week at Armwood High School, and Wednesday morning they are officially welcomed into the Hilllsborough County school district.

If tradition holds, they'll be told to make the most of the Gates-funded mentoring program. They'll be warned not to be alone in a room with a student, or friend kids on Facebook.

And, unlike in other districts, bosses will urge these teachers to join the union.

We'll live-tweet the highlights.

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Hillsborough district and critics seek to ease racial disparities

As the Hillsborough County school district develops new ways to reach out to students who are at risk of failing or dropping out, they are doing so amid a chorus of concern about racial disparities.

Speakers at Tuesday's meeting lined up to address the board about what is known widely as the school-to-prison pipeline. The theory holds that schools, through their disciplinary practices, particularly affecting minority children, are putting many students on the road to a life in the criminal justice system.

"We don't intend to throw our children away, but we do," said Mike Pheneger, chairman of the local chapter of the American civil Liberties Union.

Marilyn Williams, who filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, said that of the district's 42 middle schools, 41 disciplined black students disproportionately to their numbers.

The matter is now under investigation, with the district preparing its response. …

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New principals are named in Hillsborough

Danielle Shotwell

Danielle Shotwell

The Hillsborough County School Board named these new principals on Tuesday:

* Danielle Shotwell to Riverview High School. Shotwell joined the district in 1996, working at Brandon, Sickles, Riverview and Bloomingdale high schools before she was named principal of Eisenhower Middle School in 2012.

* Paul Gansemer to Brewster Technical Center from Orange Grove Middle Magnet.

* Angela Vickers to North Tampa Alternative from Sligh Middle School.

* Dallas Jackson to Sligh Middle School.


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"Student success" gets a leader in Hillsborough

Speaking at the top of Tuesday's School Board meeting, Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia said she is moving ahead with plans to create student success teams that will focus on at-risk students.

Agenda documents show that person will be Shaylia McRae, subject to a board vote. McRae joined the district in 1998. She worked at Franklin Middle School before it was converted to the all-boy format; Plant High and Martinez Middle School, where she was principal until 2011. Since then she has been a principal coach.

The idea behind the teams is to create collaboration between each school's principal, guidance counselors and social workers, and specialists in English for Speakers of Other Languages and Exceptional Student Education. Together, these educators and administrators will focus on students who are considered at-risk based on these criteria: Grades and credits, test scores, attendance, age (for example, if the student has repeated grades) and behavior.

"Our focus is on middle school and high school, but elementary certainly has to be on the page," Elia said. …

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Florida Virtual School changes its policy on collaborative projects

Florida Virtual School long has required its students to participate in collaborative assignments as part of their course requirements. The idea has been that in the business world, people need to have the ability to work with their peers to solve problems and create reports and products.

In the world of far-flung classmates, who don't always have access to one another or mutually available time to cooperate, the concept doesn't always work. Some school officials pointed this out to FLVS leaders, who have dialed back the mandate.

Now, the virtual school's policies encourage rather than require the projects.

FLVS administrator Larry Banks explained the change to district officials and franchise holders this way:

"We are encouraging collaboration as always, but it should not stop a student from finishing if they have mastered the standard. This is NOT a 'No more collaboration assignments, hooray!' deal. Your teachers should still have students do them, and use discretion when, and if, they allow a student not to."

Pasco eSchool principal JoAnne Glenn said this is a positive step that will help students. It takes effect for the new academic year, which began July 1.

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Pinellas gives area superintendents control of $1.9 million in capital funds

Four area superintendents will have control over $1.9 million in capital dollars as part of a new fund created by the Pinellas County school system for the 2014/15 school year.

The top administrators - Patricia Wright, Robert Poth, Barbara Hires and Ward Kennedy - primarily oversee schools, which involves managing principals, school-based administrators and support staff. Their work typically is focused on academics. The new fund will make them more involved in "prioritizing maintenance projects," according to the budget department. The fund has $1,897,250 in it for the 2014/15 school year. The School Board will consider Tuesday night whether to tentatively approve a $1.2 billion budget, which includes the new fund for area superintendents.

Area superintendents already have agreed to use more than half of the funds for one project at one school. St. Petersburg High is getting $1 million for its construction academy, according to a list released by the school district. The Gradebook will be asking what the process is for area superintendents to determine who gets their project funded.

Here are the other projects and the area superintendent who oversees the corresponding school:  …

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Florida's back-to-school sales tax holiday runs this weekend

Time sure does fly. Here it feels like classes just let out, and the back-to-school sales tax holiday is upon us.

Most Florida schools already have posted their supply lists for the new year, which begins in scant weeks. If you're hoping to save a bit on the purchase, this weekend is the time.

A long list of supplies (less than $15 per item) and clothing (less than $100) will be tax-free Friday through Sunday. New to this year's list are youth bicycle helmets, child restraint systems and car booster seats.

See more information here before you shop. Then be sure to enjoy the last days of summer.

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Florida education news: Extended day, school hours, dress codes and more

EXTENDED DAY: Pasco district officials must find $1 million in their budget proposal after the Florida Department of Education says their lowest performing elementary schools must add an hour to their instructional day. • Volusia schools prepare for longer days because of the rule, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reports.

EARLY DISMISSAL: The Florida DOE investigates allegations that a Lee elementary school didn't provide enough hours of schooling to children for years, Fox 4 reports.

WHAT TO WEAR: Some Lake parents complain about their school's attempt to enforce uniforms without following proper procedure, WKMG Local 6 reports.

UPGRADES: A Brevard computer software rollout falls behind schedule, causing potential political fallout, Florida Today reports.

FAILED: A Boynton Beach charter school faces closure after two consecutive F grades, the Palm Beach Post reports.

NEEDS IMPROVEMENT: Polk superintendent Kathryn LeRoy promises more changes to improve student performance, the Ledger reports.

TENSE TIMES: Emails reveal a Lee principal's concerns with her treatment by the district in the weeks leading to her abrupt resignation, the Fort Myers News-Press reports.

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Another candidate forum in Hillsborough

Rounding out our list of upcoming public forums featuring candidates for the Hillsborough County School Board:

1. Aug. 3, 7 a.m., Idlewild Baptist Church, Lutz

2. Aug. 5, 5:30 p.m., Bell Shoals Baptist Church, Brandon.

3. Aug. 10, 2 p.m., John Germany Public Library, downtown Tampa. This one is hosted by the East Hillsborough Democratic Club.

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