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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Pinellas, Hernando school districts brag about derided baseline grades as "improvements"

Florida's 2015 school grades became official Friday, concluding a monthslong saga over their validity and how superintendents across the state lost confidence in the new grading system. Some speculated that no one would care about the debut of the new grades based on the Florida Standardized Assessments.

But apparently Pinellas and Hernando counties, along with Duval County, still care. These three counties sent press releases Friday championing their improvements.

RELATED: Doubts grow over Florida's school testing system as senators question new 'validity' study

Pinellas and Duval both touted how their districts' grade of a B was the first since 2011. The headline on Hernando County's press release read: "HERNANDO COUNTY IMPROVES SCHOOL DISTRICT GRADE."

However, the Florida Department of Education sent this in an email to all superintendents Friday morning:

"It is important to note that the 2014-2015 preliminary informational baseline district and school grades do not include learning gains since that was the first school year the Florida Standards Assessments (FSA) were administered, nor does it include provisions, such as the safety net, which are now prohibited by law."

And: …

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Two new principals named for Pasco County schools

Two administrators with secondary level connections have been named to lead elementary schools in the Pasco County school district.

Steve Williams, currently director of Teaching and Learning, will head up the district's newest elementary, located in Wesley Chapel. Williams was principal at Sunlake High School, as well as an assistant principal at River Ridge and Wiregrass Ranch high schools, before moving to the district office. He also was a special education teacher.

Shauntte Butcher, currently an assistant principal at Wiregrass Ranch High, has been selected to lead Woodland Elementary in Zephyrhills. She will be Woodland's third principal since August, following Kim Poe and Wendy Lane, each of whom took district-level positions. Butcher, who also has been an assistant principal at Paul R. Smith Middle, most recently has coordinated Wiregrass Ranch's 10-period day scheduling.

Williams is scheduled to begin his new post on Feb. 29. He will work at Sand Pine Elementary while the new elementary school is being constructed. Butcher is scheduled to start her new job on Feb. 17.  …

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Florida Board of Education to amend state math standards

It's been a two years since Florida renamed and tweaked the Common Core into what leaders now consider the state's own academic standards.

Since then, much of the attention has gone to the tests, their scoring and their use in things such as teacher evaluations and school grades.

Next week, the standards return to the forefront, as the State Board of Education considers several amendments to Florida's math expectations. It will look at deleting some of the items, amending others and adding new ones.

The big expansion comes in calculus, which the board added to the mix in 2014. Other changes point students toward more broad understanding of concepts, a big deal in Common Core, rather than rote memorization.

For instance, the proposal recommends deleting this standard: "Express the length of an object as a whole number of length units, by laying multiple copies of a shorter object (the length unit) end to end; understand that the length measurement of an object is the number of same-size length units that span it with no gaps or overlaps. Limit to contexts where the object being measured is spanned by a whole number of length units with no gaps or overlaps."  …

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Florida 2015 school grades are now out

Florida's long awaited 2015 school grades are now official.

With little fanfare, the Department of Education published spreadsheets with the information early Friday morning. 

Based on rules the State Board of Education adopted in January, they differ little from the simulated grades that the department released in December. (See an overview here).

Remember, they represent a baseline, because the results cannot be compared to the 2014 FCAT. As a result, schools will not be held to accountability consequences this year, although if they improved they can be removed from the system. Many educators and parents said they won't give the scores too much credence.

Testing for the 2016 grades begins on Feb. 29.

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Florida education news: Charter connections, budgets, bonuses and more

CONNECTED: Rep. Erik Fresen, at the heart of a Florida House effort to shift school district construction funding to charter schools, has close ties to charter firm Academica. The Florida Senate proposes an alternative approach to Fresen's idea.

BUDGETS: The Florida Senate, House and governor have different ideas for how to fund public education in FY 2017. More from the Palm Beach Post.

EXODUS: Hernando County teachers leave the district at higher rates than in the past.

TENSIONS: A Duval School Board member wants to fire superintendent Nikolai Vitti, Florida Politics reports.

DISSENSION: The awarding of Best and Brightest bonuses to Gulf teachers causes divisions in the ranks, the Port St. Joe Star reports.

SAFETY CONCERNS: A stray bullet nearly hits a child in a portable classroom at a Miami-Dade elementary school, NBC Miami reports. It's the second such incident in two days, CBS Miami reports. More from the Miami Herald. • A threat on a Manatee school is deemed not credible, the Bradenton Herald reports. • A teacher at a St. Augustine Catholic school resigns after bringing a gun to school, the St. Augustine Record reports. …

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An opposing view on Hillsborough's letter to the Office of Civil Rights

Potter Elementary School is 89 percent black and only 2 percent white. It is one of numerous schools racially identifiable schools in Hillsborough County.

Potter Elementary School is 89 percent black and only 2 percent white. It is one of numerous schools racially identifiable schools in Hillsborough County.

The Hillsborough County School District says it has made enough progress in curing racial disparities that it can enter into a voluntary agreement with the federal government. A 17-page letter from Superintendent Jeff Eakins outlines steps Hillsborough has taken to improve restorative justice, cut down on punitive measures that push minority students out of school; and encourage top teachers to work at high-poverty, high-minority schools.

But is it enough?

Saba Baptiste, education chair of the Hillsborough branch of the NAACP, doesn't think so. Baptiste, expressing her own views and not those of the organization, makes a case that the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights should continue its investigation. Baptiste also was a member and co-chair of the community task force that met for more than a year before recommending changes in the district's discipline policies.

Here is her statement:

I am a supporter of the school district, but it is segregated. …

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Recess bill won't get Senate hearing, Education Committee chairman says

Sorry, recess moms.

The push to mandate 20 minutes of daily recess in Florida's elementary schools, which passed three House committees without opposition, won't be heard by the Senate Education Committee this session.

"I am not going to put it on the agenda," committee chairman Sen. John Legg told the Gradebook. "It doesn't merit a Tallahassee solution."

Legg noted that he has, during his tenure, opposed uniform charter school contracts, physical education mandates, state-set school start dates and other initiatives that he considered local decisions. He viewed recess through the same lens.

"We should always let the people closest to the problem address it," he said, adding that Pinellas school district leaders already acted on their own to add recess to the elementary day next year.

Legg went on to say he did not consider any remaining bills that had not been heard critical enough to warrant his committee's attention. He has no plans to hold a meeting next week, and said he left open the possibility of a Week 7 meeting only to deal with issues where the House and Senate are working out details, such as school choice. …

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Florida Senate acts on Pasco students' idea to remove Confederate general statue from U.S. Capitol

On a school trip to Washington D.C., students from Pasco County's Dayspring Academy noticed that one of Florida's representative statues in the Capitol was of a Confederate general, Edmund Kirby Smith.

The students "could not believe he was best to represent Florida," said Sen. John Legg, who founded and still works at the charter school. So Legg filed a bill to remove the statue in favor of some other prominent Floridian to be selected by a committee.

The idea wasn't popular with everyone. Last week, groups of people gathered outside Legg's office in Lutz, waving Confederate flags to protest the measure.

But the student-inspired legislation passed the Senate 33-7 on Thursday with almost no discussion. A companion bill, which provides for the removal of statues of Smith and, possibly, Dr. John Gorrie, is moving through the House with almost no opposition.

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Pinellas School Board workshop agenda items missing — again

Update: Five out of the eight workshop agenda items have been posted on the Pinellas County Schools website as of 2 p.m.

The Pinellas County Schools administration has a history of not posting School Board workshop agenda items ahead of time — and they've done it again.

As of 1 p.m. today, only the agenda for Tuesday's workshop is up online. Florida statute requires agencies to post agendas and corresponding items at least seven days before an event.

Tuesday's workshop agenda contains a few interesting items, most notable is a policy change update regarding immunizations. At least 14 students at Plumb Elementary have fallen sick with the chicken pox virus since January, and many of those children were exempt from the required vaccine.

The agenda also list items on a real estate update concerning the North Ward Elementary site in Clearwater and requests to expand charter schools Discovery Academy of Science (a kindergarten through fifth grade school in Dunedin) and Athenian Academy (a kindergarten through eighth grade school in Clearwater). The schools currently have 156 and 404 students enrolled, respectively.

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Still waiting for Florida's 2015 school grades?

The newest Florida school grading formula became official on Tuesday, and state education officials indicated that 2015 school grades based on the formula would follow soon after.

Many people expected the results, which will look much like a simulation released in December, on Tuesday concurrent with the new rule taking effect.

Thursday morning, however, found school district officials checking their in-boxes for word from the state detailing when the final grades will arrive. They found nothing.

The grades won't be out today, Department of Education spokeswoman Alix Miller told the Gradebook at noon, and it's not yet determined if they will come on Friday either.

Miller said the department was reviewing all its data in advance of any release. She added the department will alert the public when the grades are ready.

Despite the desire to have the grades, there's not much excitement brewing over them. Many groups, from parents to superintendents, pressed the state to cancel the grades, at least for this year, because of concerns over last spring's testing and the lack of comparison data between 2014 and 2015. …

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Florida students gain 30 minutes on state writing test

When students take their computerized Florida Standards Assessments in writing later this month, they'll have a half hour longer to complete their work than they had a year ago.

Last year, they had 90 minutes, with an optional 30 minutes to finish (if they knew about the optional extension). Now, everyone will get 120 minutes, with retakers allowed "up to half the length of a typical school day" for the exam. (The handwritten FCAT writing test was limited to two pages and 45 minutes.)

It's part of an effort to ensure that students are tested on what they know, rather than on their speed and keyboarding skills. After watching students take a practice test, one Hillsborough County language arts teacher said 120 minutes appeared to be adequate time for children to do the work.

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Florida education news: School grades, teacher evaluations, community schools and more

PUBLIC INPUT: Pinellas district leaders ask for community views on what to do with Melrose Elementary School.

AFTER-SCHOOL PROGRAMS: Florida senators question a proposal to create a competitive grant program for after-care funding.

SCHOOL GRADES: Palm Beach district officials are not optimistic about anticipated 2015 school marks, the Sun-Sentinel reports.

EMPLOYEE DISCIPLINE: A Citrus County teacher is suspended amid allegations she gave students drugs, alcohol and sex tips, ABC Action News reports. • A Brevard transportation worker is arrested in connection with a suspected theft ring in district inventory, Florida Today reports. • A Marion high school teacher is suspended for giving students answers to semester tests, the Ocala Star-Banner reports.

EVALUATIONS: Orange County teachers are upset over a recent state report showing their district had fewer "highly effective" teachers than others, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

INVESTIGATION: State auditors look into allegations of lacking oversight in a Polk district software purchase, the Ledger reports. …

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Pinellas School Board member Ken Peluso draws two challengers for August election

Pinellas County School Board member Ken Peluso was the first to file for reelection in September.

Five months later, two Pinellas school teachers have entered the race for his District 4 seat, which covers north Pinellas areas Tarpon Springs, East Lake and Palm Harbor. 

Chris Hardman, 63, of Clearwater, is entering his third race for School Board. He lost in the 2006 election for the at-large District 2 seat and again in 2008 for the District 4 seat, where both he and Peluso lost to incumbent candidate Robin Wikle. Peluso replaced Wikle when she left her seat mid-term in 2014. 

Hardman, whose career has brought him to teaching posts around the county since 2002, said he would like to add more fundamental schools, especially in south St. Petersburg. He added that he was more suited for the job because he has relevant and current experience that Peluso lacks.

"You need to know what’s going on and provide relevant input at workshops and board meetings," Hardman said. "We can’t afford to have weak board members at this time in the development of the school district. It hurts the whole operation of the district." …

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Bailey Elementary is honored after book drive for literacy

Bailey Elementary students conducted a book drive as part of a state literacy campaign

Hillsborough County Public Schools

Bailey Elementary students conducted a book drive as part of a state literacy campaign

Bailey Elementary School in east Hillsborough was recognized during First Lady Ann Scott's recent visit to the district for a book drive the school conducted for Celebrate Literacy Week.

The details are in this Newsdesk article on the district's website. 

Bailey, which is located at the same site as Strawberry Crest High School, has a large population of children from migrant farm families. To improve literacy of the children and their parents, students at Bailey held a book drive this year. Photos are included in the Newsdesk report.

Winners were announced at the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee. The contest reflected this year's theme, "Literacy Changes Our World," and focused on literacy-civics school service projects.

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Florida House would make it harder for school districts to pass tax referenda

While the Florida House Appropriations Committee made a show of its efforts to restrict school districts' construction spending, the chamber's Local and Federal Affairs Committee took quieter steps to make it harder for districts to win added revenue for building and capital projects.

With no discussion or debate, the panel unanimously agreed to send to the floor HB 791, which would require districts to win 60 percent voter approval for local tax referenda held during primary elections. Those held during general elections would require a simple majority.

In recent years, school districts increasingly have looked to voters to authorize local sales tax increases to help pay for new schools, additions and renovations. Some districts additionally have held votes to increase their local property taxes to boost their general operating funds.

Under HB 791, districts would face a higher hurdle for passage in certain cases, in addition to stricter guidelines for when they may hold such elections. The proposed legislation would bar special elections for local tax measures. …

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