Jackson: Pinellas gets C for transition to neighborhood schools
Pinellas could have done a better job in preparing for the return of neighborhood schools, especially in south county, said school board candidate Jim Jackson.
"More resources should have been transferred to underperforming schools in District 7 to raise the achievement levels and curtail violence," Jackson wrote in a questionairre for the St. Petersburg Times editorial board. "Some parents from other parts of the county have been reticent to send their children to the outstanding magnet and Centers of Excellence housed in south county campuses.'
Jackson also said Superintendent Julie Janssen is "losing touch with various segments of the school system" and questioned the board's decision to extend her contract.
Jackson faces Keisha Bell and Lew Williams for the District 7 seat.
Here is the full questionairre:
1) The school district faces a $26 million budget gap for 2010-11, and a potential shortfall of $53 million the following year. Gaps that wide call for major cost cutting. What should be cut? What should be spared?
The budget gap is the biggest challenge facing the public schools. Because the future of the real estate market is uncertain, we should start by looking at areas which can be cut now, and, if necessary, dip into the Cliff Reserves to fill any remaining gaps.
Every adult that works in the school system should have one motivation in mind - enhancing student learning in the classroom. All job classifications should be open to scrutiny as to how each person in each job works to enhance student learning.
The Centers for Excellence and the many outstanding magnet programs should not be cut. Traditional schools may need some additional resources to boost overall achievement. Oftentimes, schools with higher socio-economic populations receive perks from parents, while schools in lower socio-economic areas do not receive these same perks. Although I would not discourage parents from providing supplemental funds or equipment, we must realize that it perpetuates a two-class system within the traditional schools.
I would encourage the board to ask our business partners for help on cost-cutting suggestions, as many private sector businesses have been downsizing for years. I would also advocate against rehiring recent retirees and would not be for extending the D.R.O.P. program.
Some cuts have been suggested which will have minimal impact on the budget. The recall of Blackberry phones from staff has been mentioned. The savings from consolidating and cancelling certain bus routes has also been floated. The new three bell schedule and bus times were scrapped after pressure from parents.
In summary, we should do a full audit of what staff positions actually do and what they are paid. We should look for private sector help from our partners to generate additional cost reductions. We should bypass hiring recent retirees and not extend the D.R.O.P. program. The reality is that instructional personnel and support staff may take the largest burden of the cuts during the 2011-2012 year. If that happens, staff positions at all levels should be proportionately cut.
2) Four Pinellas high schools are expected to be under state oversight this fall because of inadequate performance. Who is to blame and how can the problems in those schools be fixed?
I don't think that there is one good place to lay blame, but we should realize that the shift from the choice program to neighborhood schools may be a part of the equation. The homogeneous nature of some of these schools may have contributed to inadequate performance. For example, one school in particular had four gangs bringing their conflicts to the school campus.
More parental involvement has helped in some individual cases. Calls home to a parent may, in some instances, bring an immediate action. I am aware of a situation where a mother came to school and sat in her son's class and his behavior immediately changed. Home visits where an entire team visits a student's home to do an assessment to determine how to help the parents assist the student can be done. I will take up more suggestions which I have in this area.
3) Julie Janssen has been superintendent for just under two years, and while she still enjoys the support of the School Board, she has been criticized this year for being tone deaf in some public comments and unaware of developing problems in some schools. Does Janssen have the skills to lead the district through this difficult time?
It seems increasingly clear to me that Dr. Janssen is losing touch with various segments of the school system. She came into her role at a bad time for the schools. Everyone agrees on that. Early on, her leadership did seem to be in the right direction; however, recent events have brought her leadership style into question.
Most school board members that I have spoken with have told me that they do not receive notice of information with correct budget numbers in a timely fashion before they have to vote at school board meetings. This happened most recently with the initial adoption of new start times for schools.
Dr. Janssen has also failed to be forthright on issues from time-to-time. Two significant examples of this are the issues relating to high schools under state oversight and the recent transfer of principals and assistant principals to various schools. Many of Dr. Janssen's decisions have come at the last moment, referred to by some as the "summer surprise." Many teachers and parents feel disconnected from this process. Dr. Janssen needs to go beyond her inner circle and listen to what teachers and parents have to say. I think her performance will improve and confidence in her will be restored if she does that.
Specifically to District 7, I was troubled when Dr. Janssen minimized the depth of the violence at John Hopkins.
In these tight budget times, I question the three year extension given to Dr. Janssen. While I understand that school board members felt the need to bring this one piece of continuity to the system, I still disagree with the existing board on this issue at this time.
4) What changes would you like to see at the district administration level?
The district administration level definitely needs closer scrutiny. Many parents and teachers wonder what these staff persons assigned to the district really do. Some teachers believe that they micromanage items which could be handled at the school level by principals and assistant principals.
Some of these district administrators are highly paid staff which have been elevated to these positions while talented and well-trained staff at the individual school level do not get the opportunity to move up. School-based management where more decisions are made on the individual campus level, and not at the regional level, ought to be considered.
5) What steps should the superintendent and School Board take to improve student behavior? What should be done with chronically disruptive students?
A single student or a small group of students acting out can be very disruptive in any class or on any campus. Often, students which are viewed as chronically disruptive are suspended or assigned to an alternative school. These are not good solutions. There are numerous other ways to approach this issue in most instances.
Here are a few alternate approaches:
1) Contacting parents about disruptive student behavior
2) Changing a student's schedule to give them a fresh start away from his/her original peers
3) In-school suspension, an option which keeps the student up with his/her classes
4) Increased one-on-one communication between teachers and disruptive students
5) More diverse, stimulating learning experiences which integrate tools beyond textbooks (Examples: role playing, newspapers, magazines, the internet, video games and movies)
Students which bully, harass, intimidate or physically harm teachers or other students simply cannot be tolerated. When a staff member hears or sees any of the above actions happening, an immediate response needs to be taken. All adults on the school campus need to be quasi school resource officers to watch for signs of abuse and intimidation. In some rare cases, criminal charges against a student may need to be filed.
6) Parents are clamoring for more fundamental schools in Pinellas, and at least three high schools have asked to be next in line to go fundamental. Do you support the expansion of fundamental schools? Under what conditions?
Improving the number of fundamental schools at all levels appears to be a great idea to improve the basic skill levels of students. Fundamental schools are very similar to the schools I attended as a child, as well as the ones that my two grown sons and my granddaughter attended in Miami. The fundamental school appeal is great for parents that can make the commitment to make sure a student is at school on time, does their homework and they are able to sign off on the homework every day. This contract has not been the best for everyone. The length of the list of students waiting to enter a fundamental school correlates with the quality of education students are receiving in our traditional schools. The cost is greater for operating the fundamental schools, and that is a factor the school board needs to consider. Resources still need to be in the budget to bring traditional schools up to the standards that have been set.
My wife and I were both educators and we had the opportunity to pick the schools and teachers which served our sons. That is not an option for many of our parents who currently have children in the Pinellas County system. The lottery system is great for those students who get lucky, but many other parents find their children being excluded from good programs.
I am in full agreement with the concept of fundamental schools that will include "teaching across the curriculum" and still make sure all students get some art and music. Those programs are some of the biggest draws for the creative student that has yet to shine in the basic skill areas
7) Schools that have a high level of parental involvement generally have fewer problems. What ideas do you have for increasing parental involvement in schools, especially schools in low socioeconomic areas?
Schools should be a welcoming environment for parents to visit. Staff members need to communicate in the most effective manner for parents. This may mean choosing terminology which parents will best understand. Classes need to be offered to help parents acquire the skills to help their children with their homework. Parents should feel that the school is an extension of their home environment. If the parents are unable to participate, another significant adult in the child's life should be identified and enlisted.
Staff should also increase home visits to ensure that the student has a place to study and the tools to succeed. This can be done in a non-judgmental fashion. Phone calls to parents to inquire about absences or difficulties with subjects also help.
Good schools make good neighborhoods. As parents are able to see that the time they invest in their sons and daughters helps, the schools and the neighborhoods are bound to improve.
8) What is your opinion of the current school district's proposal to change how teachers are evaluated? Does it go far enough in encouraging good teachers and providing a way for the district to remove ineffective teachers?
The application for Race to the Top funds will take peer evaluations into account as part of the overall teacher's evaluation. I always found these useful on the college level. However, it does not appear that any substantive training is in place to teach evaluation skills to peers, and it also does not appear that there is any supplemental funding in place to pay for this extra duty. Teachers tell me that the same teachers often end up on all the same committees. These teachers will probably be asked to do the peer evaluations as well, and may not have the most objective criteria on which to base their evaluations.
An administrator can begin documenting deficiencies for any classrom teacher at any time. When a teacher is found to be deficient or receives a less than satisfactory evaluation, a prescriptive plan to imporve their performance can be put into place. If a teacher's file continues to expand with negative items, steps can be taken to terminate that teacher.
The entire process of eliminating an unsatisfactory teacher does seem to take much too long and needs to be streamlined while still being fair. Overall, the system currently in place does give an administrator the opportunity to remove a teacher for just cause once a case is built and documented.
Open and honest evaluation of staff is always a difficult issue. I have confidence that the bargaining unit and the administration will work to improve this process.
9) Grade the school district on its management of the transition to neighborhood schools. What has it done well? What has it done poorly? What would you have done differently?
I would give the school district a C on the transition to neighborhood schools.
Some parents have indicated that, with the return to neighborhood schools, students bring behavioral problems with them based upon strife and gang behavior in their neighborhoods. This situation had been predicted by one school board member as she discussed what might occur when students with gang backgrounds from Jordan Park, Bethel Park and Bartlett Park came together on one campus. This strife came to a boiling point at John Hopkins Middle School this past spring. While the violence on the campus was at first glossed over by the superintendent, steps were taken to ensure that the school would return to a safe environment for students to learn and for teachers to teach.
While parents in other parts of Pinellas County welcomed the transition back to neighborhood schools, parents in the south part of the county indicated that they were not sure that this was the correct direction to go. More resources should have been transferred to underperforming schools in District 7 to raise the achievement levels and curtail violence. Some parents from other parts of the county have been reticent to send their children to the outstanding magnet and Centers of Excellence housed in south county campuses.
Parents should have been more involved in the process of returning to neighborhood schools. The two town hall meetings held this last year were a great first step. The town hall meeting held recently at John Hopkins Middle School was well attended by parents and interested community leaders. It had a great question and answer session with an outstanding panel. The parents who attended felt that they were being heard, and the administrators that were present planned one on one follow-ups with parents that had specific concerns. These were great events and should occur more than two times per year in a county as large and diverse as Pinellas.
10) Across the bay in Hillsborough County, the school district is awash in innovations and creative thinking resulting from the award of a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In comparison, Pinellas looks tentative, conservative and mired in problems. Is that comparison accurate? What can be done to inspire more creativity, innovation and public involvement in Pinellas?
The requirements of Senate Bill 6, where tenure and merit pay are tied to student performance on tests, are Gates Foundation guidelines. The Hillsborough School District may be giving away too much autonomy in following these guidelines. Having said that, Senate Bill 6 may be coming back in the next legislative session and possibly without a governor who will veto the bill. Therefore, we may be tied to the same guidelines that are included in the Gates Foundation application.
In that case Pinellas probably should have gone after those funds and, given the opportunity, should still do that. Obviously, long term assessment of the results of the Gates Foundation program in Hillsborough on student achievement is a critical issue that Pinellas needs to follow closely. That State of Florida missed out on the original Race to the Top Funding and a neighbor county did receive the Gates Foundation package; Pinellas County has to be more aggressive in applying for and receiving similar funding when available.
11) Should the School Board change the start time for high schools? Why or why not?
Yes! The start time for high schools remains at 7:05 am. Some teachers have told me that their days begin as early as 3:00 am in order to get up, get ready, drive to school and be in place before students arrive. Currently, students that are bused are required to arrive at their bus stops as early as 5:30 am in total darkness. Teachers report that many students are just too tired early in the day to have an optimal learning experience.
The start time for high schools needs to be revisited and ought to be delayed until at least 7:30 am.
12) Last year the school district signed a memo of understanding to address the achievement gap between white and black students. What is your opinion of that agreement? Does it go far enough?
The mediation between both sides of the Bradley v. Pinellas County School Board does set the stage for a new era that will hopefully reduce the achievement gap between black students and other students in the school system. I certainly hope that the school board can finally live up to the terms of the settlement of the suit. It is far past time for actions to be taken that will increase the success of all students, in particular for those black students that have not yet gained the academic skills necessary to achieve a good job and a good life.
Obviously, this has been a long process and it is too soon to tell if the school board is serious about carrying out the terms of this agreement. Resources are already stretched to cover the needs of all students; to move resources to the south side will take the cooperation of all sectors of the school system including parents, teachers and students. There are really two "memorandums of understanding." One is aimed at reducing the achievement gap between black and white students. The other statement includes making discipline the same for black and white students.
The manner in which black students are disciplined and referred for alternative schools may be the easier of the two statements to apply to the school population.
Obviously, there may be some pushback from other parents in the school system that do not feel school resources should be utilized to remediate any one particular group. It will take consistent action by the school board to make sure gains are made as quickly as possible.
13) In November Florida voters will reconsider the 2002 class size amendment. What is your position on that issue?
I have surveyed a number of teachers and parents on this issue. The most vital information, however, was obtained through a long conversation with the demographer of the school system. He was able to provide many insights that I had not received from others. He could not think of a single situation he has seen where the addition of one or two new students in any one school tipped the balance so that an additional classroom or instructor had to be found. Students transfer in and out of a particular school throughout the school year and thus far it has not been a hardship for the school system.
Increasing class size as a way to reduce the budget long term does seem like a viable option, but recent polling suggests that a majority of parents and teachers oppose the upcoming amendment.
I am inclined to support the amendment in the interest of budget savings, even though it does not appear that these savings will be that large.
14) Describe why voters should consider you for this office and what you hope to accomplish:
I will bring a fresh set of eyes and a new perspective to the school board. I have more than 35 years of experience in education, primarily as a college professor and teacher trainer, but I won't be burdened by any alliances or debts from time spent within the Pinellas County school system. If elected, my first and only priority will be to the voters who I am elected to serve and to the children whose education I am committed to improve.
I feel that I am a good fit for the District 7 seat. My training, in both my PhD program and my post-doc, has given me tools to deal with the inequities that we have in educational programs aimed at lifting up predominately minority schools. I have taught over 25,000 students during the course of my career, and many of them have told me that I helped change their lives. My experience with faculty and staff training on the learning styles of students and the most appropriate teaching strategy to fit their learning style will also be an asset as a school board member.
As a school board member, my first priority will be working to make our schools a safe environment in which to learn. If we want world-class schools, it must start with giving our children the confidence that they will be safe on our campuses.