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Florida education commissioner hears plenty of ideas for school issues in Pasco visit

LAND O'LAKES — Florida education commissioner Eric J. Smith gets to hear from lawmakers and state officials any time he wants.

His time with educators in the trenches, he admits, is not nearly enough.

So he welcomed the opportunity to visit Pasco County schools Thursday afternoon to talk with "real" teachers, parents, students and administrators.

"It is a great pleasure, first of all, to be out of Tallahassee and not be at some silly meeting somewhere where I have to talk about something," Smith told a group at Oakstead Elementary, where he learned about the school's global learning initiatives and toured second and third grade math classes.

The Pasco educators didn't waste time complaining about issues. As special education department director Monica Verra noted, "What's important is to come up with suggestions. It's easy to find problems."

And the group certainly had its share of recommendations.

High school principals asked Smith to reconsider the scores that students can earn on the ACT or SAT to replace their 10th grade FCAT results. The newly published level, particularly for ACT reading, appears too high, Pasco High principal Pat Reedy said.

It also comes into effect for this year's juniors, he noted, many of whom already had passed the exam with the lower rate that had been in effect.

Smith acknowledged the concern and said he would have his staff revisit the issue.

Chris Dunning, principal of Paul R. Smith Middle, called for fixed guidelines on how schools may use state recognition funds. Too often, he said, staffs fight about the money.

"It can be very divisive among staff," Dunning said. "This year, with the high school grades not even coming out until after Nov. 1, we feel it's a perfect opportunity to change … to a set procedure, so a reward can be a reward."

Money offered a constant theme.

Marti Meacher, the district's head of professional development, suggested that schools need more money to properly train teachers in the many mandates coming from the state.

Peggy Jones, director of assessment, called for more cash to support creation of new tests that help educators evaluate student performance.

Pasco Middle principal Kim Anderson asked for greater financial support to help schools improve their technology, so they can meet both educational demands and the state's move to computerized testing.

If nothing else, leadership development director John Mann said, the state should set some priorities so the schools don't feel like they're spread so thin, particularly when times are tough.

Smith and Chancellor Frances Haithcock, who accompanied the commissioner, took copious notes of all the ideas. He encouraged everyone to keep their ideas coming.

"If you have a suggestion, e-mail me: eric.smith@fldoe.org," he said.

Kids today don't care that the economy is rough, he continued. They just want the education they deserve to compete. The state's goal is to get them there, with the help of the people who are in the classrooms doing the hard work.

After the idea session broke up, Reedy said he found it valuable.

Pasco educators know that the commissioner is listening, he said, and if the message comes through from multiple places, maybe change will come.

Smith said the input helps him, too, as the Department of Education works to help craft and implement legislation, pursue new areas of funding such as the federal Race to the Top, and otherwise push Florida's school system to greater levels.

"We'll take this stuff and go back to fiddle with it. It helps to focus our thinking," he said.

He praised the Pasco district for getting the job done, despite the hurdles.

"You have avoided the traps of dealing with all these adult issues fairly enough," Smith told the group, "so that you can focus on the needs of children."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at Solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Florida education commissioner hears plenty of ideas for school issues in Pasco visit 12/03/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 3, 2009 9:04pm]
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