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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

ICYMI: Florida education news in review, week of Sept. 14, 2016

Yet another busy week in the world of Florida education. The State Board of Education called for the end of a controversial teacher bonus, while the state's teacher shortage continued in several school districts. A Miami-Dade school decided to do away with homework, while Pinellas County schools explored ways to eliminate out-of-school suspensions. Follow these and other stories daily on the Gradebook. Send your thoughts and ideas to

An extra hour a day goes a long way for Florida's 'Lowest 300' schools, Jeffrey S. Solochek
"One hour. For 311 Florida elementary schools, that's the length of time they've been told to extend their day this year, just to focus on reading. It could be the fix that lifts them off the list of lowest performing schools on the state's language arts test. Or not. As the ‘Lowest 300' program enters its fifth year - with a growing number of Tampa Bay area schools on the list - educators insist it's not just the time that matters, but also how they spend it." …

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Hillsborough and Idlewild are back on the lecture circuit

A series of lectures, conducted in partnership with Idlewild Baptist Church, aim to show Hillsborough school administrators how to boost  morale.

A series of lectures, conducted in partnership with Idlewild Baptist Church, aim to show Hillsborough school administrators how to boost morale.

Back again for a second season is EPIC, the Hillsborough school administrator lecture series coordinated in partnership with Idlewild Baptist Church.

Despite backlash last year, and ongoing questions from the American Civil Liberties Union, the district teamed up with the Lutz megachurch for another series of motivational sessions for principals and assistant principals. [EPIC stands for Equipping Principals In the Community.]

The workshops, which begin Monday, are not compulsory. And, district leaders say, they draw top-drawer speakers for evenings that the school employees enjoy.

The theme is timely this year: "Developing the Talent of the Staff, Staff Morale and Culture."

Monday's program will run from 5 to 7 p.m. at the distruct's Instructional Services Center at 40th Street near Columbus Avenue.

The headline speaker is Assistant U.S. Attorney Stacie B. Harris.


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Another round of cutbacks in Hillsborough

The new round of job cuts in the Hillsborough schools includes school secretaries and classroom aides.

The new round of job cuts in the Hillsborough schools includes school secretaries and classroom aides.

The Sept. 9 elimination of about 50 central office clerical jobs in the Hillsborough County School District was followed this week by about 55 more jobs in schools around the district.

District spokeswoman Tanya Arja confirmed that the new cuts, which happened in the last couple of days, includes a variety of jobs -- secretarial and some in the classroom, such as teaching assistants.

The secretarial cuts were made to conform to a formula that was suggested by the Gibson Consulting Group, which is advising the district on how to rein in spending and protect its reserves. The old formula, for example, allowed an elementary school with 200 to 499 students to have three secretaries. The new formula allows only two secretaries for a school that size.

The classroom assistant job cuts were the result of student population numbers, Arja said. Just as happens every year with teachers, employees who are not needed at a school can look for positions in "the pool" of available jobs. …

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Hillsborough fights the AC fire with Cold Hard Facts

Readers have responded with complaints of their own, and one sent the Tampa Bay Times this photo of a school air conditioning filter.

Readers have responded with complaints of their own, and one sent the Tampa Bay Times this photo of a school air conditioning filter.

Battling a barrage of criticism on social media and in the news, the Hillsborough County School District issued its own report Friday on the state of air conditioning repair in the district.

Titled, "HCPS Air Conditioning the Cold Hard Facts," the Newsdesk article took the reader to Blake High School, where air conditioning specialists Chris McLaughlin and Michael Pratt were adjusting the school's chiller units.

Readers tell the Tampa Bay Times that Blake has been especially hot this year. The Newsdesk article showcased the district's response.

"Eighty percent of the time we are able to repair an issue on the first service call," McLaughlin told the writer.

The article includes facts and figures such as these: 

* The district operates more than 5,500 Freon-based air conditioners and 205 cold-water chillers. 

* A standard elementary school requires about as much AC as a small subdivision with 40 separate homes.

* The district spends about $4.7 million a year for parts, filters, contracted vendor costs and chiller rentals.

* Fuel costs last year, including AC, exceeded $34 million.

* Some of the air conditioners are so old, they were in use when the children's parents attended the schools. …

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Florida Board of Education seeks to end Best and Brightest teacher bonus

The Florida Board of Education on Friday backed a budget plan that would eliminate funding for the state's controversial two-year-old Best and Brightest bonus, which rewards teachers based on their job evaluations and their SAT or ACT scores.

The board's legislative budget proposal would take the bulk of the $49 million expenditure and place it into "teacher recruitment and retention." The recommended $43 million fund would provide bonuses for "new teachers who show great potential for and veteran teachers who have demonstrated the highest student academic growth among their peers."

It would use Florida's top teacher preparation programs and also aim to address shortages in STEM fields, as well as supporting "top teacher candidates and public schools with the highest needs."

Board members asked commissioner Pam Stewart for more details on the use of the money, which represented the largest single change in its proposed budget. She said she was still collecting input from teachers and other stakeholders before writing a specific plan, and asked to discuss it more in depth in October. …

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Pinellas School Board to vote on slight tweaks to fundamental rules

Midtown Academy will be a district application program open to families seeking a middle school in south Pinellas County in January.

Times archives

Midtown Academy will be a district application program open to families seeking a middle school in south Pinellas County in January.

Got kicked out of a fundamental school? You could have a second chance, according to new policy changes the Pinellas County School Board will consider for a vote at its Tuesday board meeting.

One of the tweaks to the district's magnet program procedures is less punitive for families who lost their spot. Under the proposed change, students will still be able to apply for a fundamental school at the next school level, like middle or high school.

So, if a student loses his or her spot in a fundamental elementary school, that child cannot apply for another fundamental school until middle school rolls around.

Midtown Academy, a Kindergarten through eighth grade school repurposed by the district from the failed University Preparatory Academy charter school, will be on the list of magnet schools parents can apply to in January. Midtown will be an option for families seeking a middle school in south Pinellas County. The school will focus on family engagement and parental involvement.

Proposed changes to the magnet program procedures, student progression policies and district strategic plan can all be viewed here.

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Florida Board of Education backs 'ambitious' academic goals in strategic plan update

During a nearly two-hour-long discussion Friday, Florida Board of Education members voiced strong support for what they called "ambitious" academic goals for the state's schools.

They generally applauded the proposed strategic plan updates, which call for six to seven percentage point increases in student performance on state tests.

"It's a pretty big audacious objective," chairwoman Marva Johnson said, after asking staff whether the goals were reachable given changes to state standards and testing. "Even at 7 percent, this is a big goal [given] how we're achieving student achievement is more rigorous than it was."

"We feel like that it's a realistic goal," K-12 chancellor Hershel Lyons told the board.

Vice chairman John Padget suggested that the state might aim even higher for science and math test results, given the board's desire to focus on STEM lessons.

Lyons said that it's "quite clear" when the state raises expectations and shares those with students, "They don't ever let us down." …

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Florida education news: Campus safety, teacher shortage, student funding and more

CAMPUS SAFETY: Florida's university leaders make funding for mental health counseling and campus security their top legislative priority for the coming year.

TEACHER SHORTAGE: Central Florida school districts still need to hire 100 teachers more than a month into the new school year, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

STUDENT FUNDING: The Florida Board of Education prepares to request a new record high in per-student funding that does not keep up with inflation, the News Service of Florida reports. * The board also will review turnaround proposals for several struggling schools, ABC Action News reports.

CHARTER SCHOOLS: The Manatee school district is set to reject another charter school application, the Bradenton Herald reports.

SPORTS: Marion middle schools expand their extracurricular athletic programs, the Ocala Star-Banner reports.

AT ODDS: The Duval School Board and superintendent will meet to discuss ways to work better together, the Florida Times-Union reports.

INPUT: The Orange School Board will survey its community to learn more about its views on key issues, the Orlando Sentinel reports. …

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Florida's academic goals need dose of reality, learning disabilities rights activist says

The Florida Board of Education should think hard before eliminating its academic goals that differ among demographic groups, a leading activist for learning-disabled student rights says.

"We need specific goals by group, because each group has unique needs," Learning Disabilities Association of Florida co-president Mark Halpert told the Gradebook via email. "Time to focus on what our kids needs us to do so they become successful, and be politically correct only to the extent it helps our kids succeed."

Halpert was one of the few people to publicly support the 2012 proposal to create distinct annual measurable objectives for the different subgroups. Reaching even those goals would be a major undertaking, he said, and students' performance to this point demonstrates that fact.

For example, Halpert noted, the 2012 plan set a goal of having 88 percent of white students be proficient in reading by 2018, up from 69 percent in 2012. By 2016, after several changes to the standards and tests, the actual rate was 63 percent. …

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Bus drivers will have their say at town hall meetings in Hillsborough

Transportation town hall meetings are back in Hillsborough.

Hillsborough schools superintendent Jeff Eakins will hear directly from drivers in these three planned gatherings:

Tuesday, September 27, 6 p.m.- 8 p.m. at Middleton High School, located at 4801 North 22ndStreet, Tampa

Tuesday, October 11, 6 p.m. - 8 p.m. at Gaither High School, located at 16200 N. Dale Mabry Hwy., Tampa

Wednesday, October 12, 6 p.m. - 8 p.m. at Brandon High School, located at 1101 Victoria Street, Tampa


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Florida Department of Education rules on school grade appeals

A couple of Tampa Bay area schools have benefited from their school grade appeals to the state after the initial grades were released, according to notifications sent to districts this week.

Bloomingdale High School in Valrico had its mark boosted from C to B, after the Florida Department of Education agreed that two students had been included in the wrong testing categories. Marchman Technical College had its F grade removed, and was given no grade, after department officials found that the students at the school were in specialty programs that no longer are there.

Several schools that appealed their grades saw no change. Those were Maniscalco Elementary in Lutz, Pivot Charter School in Riverview, San Antonio Elementary in San Antonio and Athenian Academy charter school in New Port Richey. Several Hillsborough middle schools -- McLane, Van Buren, Jennings, Mann, Memorial and Turkey Creek -- appealed over concerns about the way that students taking eighth-grade math and Algebra I were counted, but all those were denied, as well.

Hillsborough superintendent Jeff Eakins plans to talk about the math calculations when he addresses the Florida Board of Education on Friday. …

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Florida education news: Longer school day, bus drivers, homecoming and more

EXTRA HOUR: Tampa area elementary schools on Florida's Lowest 300 list for reading use their added daily hour differently, but agree that it helps.

BUS DRIVERS: Hernando school district officials review their policies on bus driver safety after one driver racks up several accidents and violations yet keeps her job.

FUND RAISERS: Several Tampa private schools are raising money for major construction plans.

BAD ACTS: A former Clearwater Central Catholic High student sues the school over accusations of being physically, emotionally and sexually abused. * Law enforcement investigates accusations that a Nassau school paraprofessional abused two children in a special needs classroom, WOKV reports.

SCHOOL GRADES: Florida schools that received an "Incomplete" from the state finally get their grades, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

PLAY TIME: An advisory committee recommends a resolution supporting mandatory recess in Duval elementary schools, the Florida Times-Union reports. * A Lee elementary school celebrates recess on its new playground, the Fort Myers News-Press reports. …

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Van Buren K-8? Could happen. But Hillsborough leaders say for now, it's just speculation

Van Buren students in the school media center


Van Buren students in the school media center

TAMPA - It's all very hypothetical at this point.

But included in a long list of future capital projects for the Hillsborough County school district is this item for Van Buren Middle School: $3 million, "K-8 conversion."

That notation reflects an option that has been discussed, off and on, since early this year: Turn Van Buren, an under-enrolled and low performing school on the outskirts of Sulphur Springs, into a better school that kids enter in kindergarten.

"If you have the right staff, the right teachers and the right program, you can become more familiar with the kids," said Lewis Brinson, a former assistant superintendent who retired this year, but was part of the discussions before he did. "You can do more with them, build better relationships."

Hillsborough has four successful K-8 schools: Tinker, at the MacDill Air Force Base; Roland Park, a magnet school; Turner-Bartels in New Tampa; and Rampello Downtown Partnership across the street from school district headquarters.

A fifth, Sulphur Springs Community School, used to be K-5 and then began adding middle school grades in 2015. So far, only sixth grade has been added. …

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Florida education department aims to drop race-based academic targets

Four years ago, the Florida Board of Education received blistering criticism for adopting academic targets that differed by racial groups. Board members didn't like the concept at first, saying all children should be judged by the same goals, but they were convinced by staff that the approach might help to reduce the achievement gap among the races.

Groups continued to blast the board and governor's office two years later, calling for the end to what they considered a discriminatory policy.

In the board's latest version of its strategic plan, up for consideration Friday, the separated "annual measurable objectives" required to get a No Child Left Behind waiver are gone. No longer would African-American children be expected to perform on grade level at a lower rate than white children, for example.

In their place are proposed statewide goals by subject area -- "increase by 6 percent in each subject area" the percent of students at grade level or above, by 2019-20. Regarding the achievement gap, the plan would call for reducing by one-third "the gap between each subgroup in each subject area" over the same time period. …

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Florida Board of Education to take up charter school capital outlay funding rules

Three months after the original plan, the Florida Board of Education is scheduled to consider new rules for charter school capital funding when it meets Friday in Tampa.

The rule comes after a contentious legislative debate over charters' eligibility for the funding, in which the House and Senate had widely different views. Superintendents, meanwhile, tried to ensure that their district tax revenues wouldn't shrink as a result of any action.

Among other things, the proposal would give charters access to funds after two years of operation rather than three. Proponents of that change argued that the existing rule benefited charter operators with deep pockets, to the detriment of small local startups.

It also would bar charter schools that earned two consecutive D state grades from receiving the money. In the past, only F-rated schools were ineligible. Additional requirements regarding financial audits and student demographics also would be taken into account when distributing the funds. …

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