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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Hillsborough superintendent to charter schools: We might shut you down

Hours after a second application was filed to open a charter school at MacDill Air Force Base, a foundation connected with the project received this warning from the Hillsborough County school district: Answer our questions or we might shut down your other Hillsborough schools.

A letter, unsigned but dated July 29, suggests that Charter Schools USA and the Florida Charter Educational Foundation, two Fort Lauderdale entities that are closely aligned, have too much control over three charter schools in Hillsborough County: Woodmont, Winthrop and Henderson Hammock.

For months, district officials have tried to ascertain the relationship between the Fort Lauderdale-based foundation and the local boards that are supposed to govern the schools.

"Although several letters have been exchanged, there has been no documentation submitted by you or the schools to explain the governance structure of the schools," Elia's letter says. …

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Should Pinellas County Schools object to Crist ad? The Florida GOP thinks so.

School administrators at St. Petersburg High allowed Charlie Crist to film a campaign ad at their school in violation of School Board policy. Now the Republican Party of Florida would like superintendent Mike Grego to ask Crist to stop using the ad.

Juston Johnson, executive director of the RPOF, wrote a strongly worded letter to Grego in which he said the TV advertisement made it appear that the School Board endorsed Crist, who is running as a Democrat against Gov. Rick Scott.

Johnson wrote, "I write to respectfully request that you take immediate action to prevent the appearance of the School Board's endorsement of a political candidate by demanding that all stations currently airing this ad cease doing so."

He said that Grego needed to ensure that the integrity of the school system is maintained.

The Crist campaign started airing the TV spot last week. In it, Crist attacks Scott's record on education. Crist also references his own education at St. Petersburg High, where he was class president and quarterback of the football team. The name of the school is featured in the beginning of the ad. …

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Parents, Goldwater Institute seek to intervene in voucher lawsuit

Six families -- and their powerful attorneys -- want to intervene in a lawsuit challenging a controversial new school choice law.

The families have asked a judge to help defend the law, which creates scholarships for children with profound special needs. The money can be used for private-school tuition, tutoring, educational materials and various types of therapy. The average award is expected to be about $10,000.

The scholarship program came into being as sweeping education bill that also expanded the school voucher program, created collegiate high schools, and addressed middle-school reform. It passed largely along party lines on the last day of session.

Earlier this month, the statewide teachers union challenged the constitutionality of the law, saying it violates a requirement that each pieces of legislation be limited to a single subject. The families want to join the existing defendants: Gov. Rick Scott, the Cabinet and Education Commissioner Pam Stewart.

The lawsuit is pending, but the plaintiffs have indicated they do not oppose allowing the families to join the case. …

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Students push Pasco School Board to end tobacco use on campuses

Hoping to spur some action, anti-smoking advocates including students this week continued to press the Pasco County School Board to change their rules that allow smoking and tobacco use on half the district's properties.

Representatives from Students Working Against Tobacco urged the board to negotiate a deal with the United School Employees of Pasco to end the 18-year-old agreement that permits workers to smoke at schools and facilities opened before July 1, 1996. They read letters from classmates who found the practice disgusting and unhealthy, and talked about the need for the district to remove the "poison" from their midst.

The speakers were, however, singing to the choir. The board already has authorized a proposal that would do what the group wanted. The USEP has yet to agree, though.

The subject, first approached in contract talks July 15, awaits a union response, which did not come during bargaining sessions this week.

Ed Ronda, USEP negotiator for school-related personnel, praised the students for their dedication to the cause. But he declined to tip his hat on the issue, which so far hasn't gained much traction. …

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Florida education news: Campaign ads, sales tax, new teachers and more

POLITICS: A Charlie Crist campaign ad filmed at St. Petersburg High violates school district policies.

TAXES: The Hernando School Board approves a referendum to extend its sales tax for school capital projects.

FIRST DAY: Hillsborough officials welcome hundreds of new teachers to the district.

TEACH THE PARENTS: The Martin school district offers Parent University to explain the 43 new laws affecting education, the Palm Beach Post reports.

CHARTER SCHOOLS: Lauderhill city leaders approve a new K-8 charter school, the Sun-Sentinel reports. • The Palm Beach School Boards ends the contract of a persistently failing charter school, the Sun-Sentinel reports.

STATUS QUO: Florida's education statistics have not dramatically changed with Rick Scott in the governor's chair, the Stuart News reports.

LEAD THE WAY: Several teachers attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University classes on how to better teach science and engineering, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reports.

TESTING: Some central Florida schools suspected of irregular FCAT results are cleared of wrongdoing, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

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St. Petersburg High violated board policy with Charlie Crist ad

Strolling toward the double doors of St. Petersburg High School, gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist says, "This isn't just a doorway to a school. It was my doorway, as a public school kid to opportunity."

The 30-second television ad, which began airing last week, shows Crist walking through the halls of the historic school, his alma mater, where he was class president and quarterback of the football team.

There's just one problem. The political advertisement never should have been filmed.

The Pinellas County school system prohibits the use of school property for "advertising or otherwise promoting the interests of any commercial, political or other non-school agency or individual organization." School administrators gave Crist's campaign permission to film in violation of that policy. Read the rest of the story here.

Also, for the eagle-eyed reader out there, pay attention to what the teenagers at the end of the ad are wearing. It appears there are a few violations of the school dress code. (And a quick shout out to Education Editor Tom Tobin for spotting those. Yes, he's a bit of a nerd.)

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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

Dallas Jackson

Dallas Jackson

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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