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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Florida computerized testing better, but not perfect, commissioner says

Toward the end of another problem-filled testing day, Florida education commissioner Pam Stewart on Tuesday advised superintendents that her department had continued to work the kinks out of the system.

Vendor AIR took "full responsibility," Stewart said, and progress was being made. But she made no promises for Wednesday.

"While we cannot guarantee that some users will not encounter similar issues tomorrow, I also do not want to prevent any districts who have had success from continuing their testing tomorrow," Stewart wrote.

At least a few superintendents said they wouldn't risk it, including those from Miami-Dade, Leon and Broward.

“We want the best possible testing environment for our students and that will not occur if there is any doubt that students will be able to sign on and complete their tests,” Leon superintendent Jackie Pons said in a statement to the Times. “The tenth grade test is directly tied to a graduation requirement. Based on my nine years of experiences as superintendent, we cannot afford to allow our students to go in to take a test with such high stakes and not have all the issues resolved." …

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Principals are reshuffled in Hillsborough

Terry Hawthorne

Terry Hawthorne

These prinicipal moves were included in Tuesday's Hillsborough County School Board agenda:

* Johan von Ancken, 36, will move from Hillsborough High School to East Bay High School.

* Maria Gsell, 60, the principal at East Bay, will take Von Ancken's job at Hillsborough.

* Terry Hawthorne, 52, will leave Broward Elementary School to become a human resource partner, a new position for the district.

* Jacquelyn Scaglione will leave Ben Hill Middle School to become another human resource partner.

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Two Democratic senators urge Gov. Rick Scott to suspend Florida testing

With Florida's new computerized testing system still struggling to perform, two state senators sent Gov. Rick Scott a letter urging him to call the whole thing off.

"It was not as if this impending catastrophe came without warning," Democrats Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth and Dwight Bullard wrote. "Superintendents, administrators and teachers, as well as legislators, from across the state have continued to steadfastly declare that we, as a state, were not ready to handle this testing system. Their please were ignored by the Department of Education, which now claims that only a few thousand students were unable to test on March 2. This is such a terrible twisting of the truth as to be almost unbelievable."

Read the full letter here.

The letter writers are in the political minority in Tallahassee. But their words are being passed around even among some very conservative Floridians, the anti-Common Core groups that have joined the state's growing anti-testing fervor.  …

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Florida House committee to consider paying districts to implement student uniforms

As anticipated, the Florida House K-12 subcommittee has put forth a bill to address the clothes kids wear to school.

Cloaking the issue as one of student safety, the Students Attired for Safe Education bill aims to limit students' wardrobe choices to, essentially, solid colored pants or skirts, and collared shirts. Students would be encouraged to "express their individuality through personality and academic achievements, rather than outward appearance."

Districts and schools have had this opportunity for years, of course, choosing to implement uniforms to varying degrees. Some parents and principals swear by them, while others find them an unnecessary extra thing to monitor. The two sides recently faced off at Pasco County's Seven Springs Middle School, where uniforms did not win the day.

Knowing there's reluctance out there, and a need for more money, the House sponsors have added a financial incentive — the bill provides for $10 per student for any district that implements a district-wide "standard student attire policy." The money would come from a $10 million safe schools allocation in the state's education finance program. …

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Florida education commissioner gives okay to return to testing

Florida education commissioner Pam Stewart told school district superintendents shortly after 7 a.m. that her department and testing vendor AIR had located and fixed the cause of Monday's computerized testing problems.

She advised that schools can begin testing again as soon as they wish, and that the online effort should be vastly improved. Several districts already have canceled testing for today. UPDATE: Shortly after the memo came out, Hillsborough schools experienced similar problems as occurred Monday and told schools they could discontinue testing. See the breaking story here.

Read on for Stewart's full memo:

From: Commissioner Stewart <Commissioner.Stewart@fldoe.org>
Date: March 3, 2015 at 7:06:57 AM EST
Subject: FSA Update

Superintendents,

The department worked with AIR throughout the day and into the evening yesterday to better understand the issues that affected online testing in Florida on Monday. AIR has determined that a software issue caused log-in issues, including delays and error messages for a number of districts. AIR reports that of the 69,177 tests that were started yesterday, 67,745 were successfully completed. …

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Florida testing vendor AIR takes responsibility for Monday problems

Some Florida superintendents already have called off computerized testing for Tuesday. The Department of Education has pledged to find and fix the problems that plagued Monday's administration.

According to Education Week, testing vendor AIR has accepted responsibility for the glacial load times, ejection of students taking tests and other troubles. Here's the statement (which curiously didn't make its way to Florida media):

"AIR Assessment, the organization delivering the tests for Florida, accepts full responsibility for the difficulty," the organization said. "We updated student data, which was not immediately available to the testing servers. When students logged onto the test, the servers were forced to reach out to other databases to get the necessary student information."

"This substantially degraded performance," the AIR added. "This data is now available to the testing servers, so the problem should not recur."

District and department officials are set to discuss the issues in a conference call some time around 7 a.m. We'll be checking in to see what's next.

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Florida education news: Testing, student clubs, school closures and more

TESTING: More than half of Florida's school districts suspend state computerized testing as the state's systems can't handle the load. • Some students taking the paper version of the test opt out, ABC Action News reports. • The state gets an F in readiness, the Miami Herald editorializes. • Testing vendor AIR accepts blame for the problems, Education Week reports.

LAWSUIT: A Hillsborough family sues the school district over the death of their first grade son, who became ill at Seminole Heights Elementary School.

TEACHER DISCIPLINE: A Broward teacher could lose her job after reportedly calling a Muslim student a "rag-head Taliban," the Miami Herald reports.

EMPOWERMENT: A Broward middle school creates a club to help girls deal with bullying, body image and other teen angst issues, the Miami Herald reports. • A Lake County middle schooler testifies against her school after it refuses to allow the creation of a gay-straight alliance, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

LABOR NEWS: Some Volusia teachers protest for higher pay and a more manageable workload, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reports. …

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Florida school districts suspend computerized testing for Tuesday

After facing problems with online testing Monday, a growing number of Florida superintendents are suspending the Florida Standards Assessment computerized writing test for Tuesday.

State officials have told districts they will work to resolve the problems through the night. But that did not assuage these district leaders.

“After talking with the Florida Commissioner of Education this afternoon, I am not confident that the state’s testing company can correct problems with their system in time for tomorrow's test-takers," Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning said in a robo-call to parents. "I do not want any more students to have questions about the validity of their answers due to problems with the state’s online testing system."

The Palm Beach district also announced its cancellation of Tuesday testing, as did Leon and Wakulla counties, which did not even begin on Monday to avoid anticipated glitches.

"We didn't start on purpose," Wakulla superintendent Bobby Pearce told the Tallahassee Democrat. "We were hoping this wouldn't happen. Right now, we are trying to hear what the definitive issues were. In the past, there were bandwidth issues." …

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Hillsborough responds to another federal lawsuit

Keith Logan Coty, a first grader at Seminole Heights Elementary School, suffered a brain hemorrhage and died in January 2014. His parents are suing the school district.

Keith Logan Coty, a first grader at Seminole Heights Elementary School, suffered a brain hemorrhage and died in January 2014. His parents are suing the school district.

Is lawyer Steven Maher reaching when he says Seminole Heights Elementary School showed an unconscionable disregard for student safety in the way it handled Keith Coty's illness? Or is there still a dangerous reluctance in Hillsborough to let staff call 911?

Lawyers for the district denied nearly all allegations in the family's federal lawsuit. Keith, a first grade student, suffered a brain hemorrhage and died the next day. At issue is whether school staff did all they could to get him the emergency medical treatment he needed, and if they acted quickly enough.

Here are the lawsuit and the district's response.

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Plans to end classes at Pasco's Moore-Mickens center continue uninterrupted

Dade City residents' complaints about moving classes away from Pasco County's Moore-Mickens Education Center have not impacted the school district's decision.

This week, the School Board plans to put an exclamation point on superintendent Kurt Browning's proposal with its 2015-16 allocation formula, a document with long-range implications that usually goes relatively unnoticed. In it, the district establishes how many of each kind of employee is required for schools and departments.

For Moore-Mickens, this year's plan couldn't be clearer. The formula reads, "Moore-Mickens Education Center: Removed all allocated units from this cost center."

Other lines indicate that the center's assistant principals for adult and community education will move to the James Irvin Education Center, while its teachers for the Teen Parent Program will relocate to Pasco High, among other changes.

So if anyone thought the district might relent on its plans to move classes away from the historic site, they might reconsider -- or urge the School Board to think twice before adopting the allocation formula. The board meets Tuesday at 9:30 a.m.

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Florida school districts report problems with new exams

Some school districts are reporting problems with the new Florida Standards Assessments, which made their debut Monday morning. Follow the breaking news here.

Miami-Dade school district spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego said the new online platform was running so slowly that testing had been postponed in Miami-Dade County until Tuesday.

Hillsborough schools spokesman Steve Hegarty reported similar issues.

"It's slow," Hegarty said. "The volume seems to be affecting the online testing."

Hegarty said middle schools had been impacted in particular because they logged on later than other schools.

Hillsborough schools also have the option of delaying testing, he added.

The problems were not limited to Miami-Dade and Hillsborough. Students in Palm Beach County were having trouble, too, according to the Palm Beach Post.

Testing began Monday, with students in grades 4 through 10 sitting for the writing portion of the exam.

This isn't the first time Florida's online servers have caused testing problems. It happened in 2011, and again in 2014. It's not as if superintendents didn't warn that this might happen.

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Florida education news: Testing, science, bus safety and more

SESSION TIME: More education issues than testing face the Florida Legislature this spring — they just don't all have the same chance of passing. • Some lawmakers want another reconsideration of the state's class size fines, the Orlando Sentinel reports. • Gov. Rick Scott is depending on the Legislature to make some of his education campaign pledges come true.

READY OR NOT: Florida's new standardized tests begin Monday, with many people saying "not," the Miami Herald reports. Volusia teachers plan a quick morning protest before testing ensues, the AP reports. More from the Herald-Tribune, State Impact Florida.

CHARTER SCHOOLS: It's time for some serious reform — such as required background checks for operators — in the laws governing Florida's charters, the Sun-Sentinel editorializes.

SCIENCE LESSONS: Some Bay technical school students learn all about electricity during a six-month project building a Tesla coil, the Panama City News Herald reports.

BUS SAFETY: Volusia schools require student identification to get on and off the school bus, and kids aren't too thrilled, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reports. …

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Florida education news: Fund raising, overcrowding, opting out and more

FIXING A HOLE: Hernando County community and parent groups raise money to pay for projects the school district can't afford.

OFF TOPIC: A Palm Beach science teacher is removed from his classroom after steering his lecture from gentrification to religion, the Palm Beach Post reports.

GROWTH: Enrollment surges in Bay County cause some school overcrowding, the Panama City News Herald reports.

OPTING OUT: Lee parents celebrate the end of "sit and stare" if their children refuse Florida's standardized tests, the Fort Myers News-Press reports.

DISABILITIES: Florida Senate president Andy Gardiner focuses on legislation to improve the lot of children with special needs, the Tallahassee Democrat reports.

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Florida education news: Opt out, hiring freeze, contract talks and more

TESTING: Parents and school districts across Florida prepare for opting out on testing day. More on opting out from the Orlando Sentinel. • One Pasco County teacher worries her students aren't ready. • Meanwhile, Florida lawmakers face a historic challenge to reform the testing system that has increasingly come under fire. • Alachua teachers are encouraged to create their own end-of-course exams, the Gainesville Sun reports.

SUPERINTENDENTS: Outgoing Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia visits Palm Beach County to check out its superintendent vacancy, the Palm Beach Post reports.

INFIGHTING: The Collier School Board will pay a mediator to keep the peace at their meetings, WINK reports.

END OF AN ERA: Longtime FSBA executive director Wayne Blanton serves his last day on the job, the Tallahassee Democrat reports.

BUDGET BALANCING: The Manatee school district enacts a targeted spending and hiring freeze, the Bradenton Herald reports.

CLIMATE SURVEY: Duval teachers offer the good, bad and ugly about their schools and principals, the Florida Times-Union reports. …

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Elia wins Women in Leadership award

Hillsborough County Public Schools Superintendent MaryEllen Elia is not leaving the American Association of School Administrators conference empty-handed.

The organization honored her with a Women in Leadership Award at its annual convention in San Diego. It wasn't the Superintendent of the Year award that her supporters had hoped she'd win, but Elia was pleased nonetheless.

"It means a lot to me," said Elia, whose last day of work will be Thursday. She acknowledged former deputy superintendent Beth Shields, who was her mentor as she rose through the ranks to become Hillsborough's first female superintendent in 2005. "I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to her and others who have mentored me and inspired me over the years," she said.

The School Board decided to terminate Elia's contract on June 30. She will be on vacation in the months before that date.

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