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Back to school challenges in Pinellas County

Workers lay down carpet Thursday in Boca Ciega High’s auditorium in preparation for an Aug. 25 start.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

Workers lay down carpet Thursday in Boca Ciega High’s auditorium in preparation for an Aug. 25 start.

Last year was a tough slog for Pinellas County schools, with leadership changes, a return to neighborhood schools and round after round of budget cuts. But this year won't be any easier. Pinellas faces a swamp of challenges when students return Aug. 25. Here are some of them, in no particular order:

Stagnant high schools

Nine of 18 earned D's this year. One earned an F. And the state grading formula is getting tougher. Starting this fall, it's no longer about the FCAT alone. Instead, Pinellas must show improvement on a long list of indicators — graduation rates, participation rates in Advanced Placement classes, etc. — or continue to be tagged with scarlet letters. On a related note, Pinellas' graduation rate climbed 7 percentage points last year, among the biggest increases in the state. But at 74.4 percent, it's still a long way from where everybody wants it to be.

Struggling black students

The poor performance of black students in Pinellas — worse than every other major urban district in Florida — is under the microscope like never before. Blame, or credit, a trifecta of developments: the F grade at Gibbs High. The rapid re-segregation of county schools. And a new legal agreement that requires schools to put more attention, and potentially more funding, toward boosting black students. Superintendent Julie Janssen sealed the deal on the legal agreement, and in doing so, staked her reputation on the toughest nut to crack in public education. She must find solutions while hamstrung with the tightest budgets in memory.

Cut, cut, cuts

The district is limping after four years of budget cuts. It cut $26.8 million last year and $38.7 million from the year ahead. That's why six schools were closed, four were consolidated and 1,000 employees were displaced. But Pinellas isn't in the clear yet. As the economy remains in a slump, some in state education circles expect another round of cuts by year's end.

Differentiated accountability

The words make people yawn, but the state program behind them is as important as it is technical. Scores of Pinellas schools are affected. Gibbs and 36 others, for example, are in an improvement category that requires them to make a long list of state-ordered changes, including more scrutiny of teacher performance. Bottom line: more work, more oversight and, maybe, more help. The state Department of Education will be looking over the district's shoulder.

Principal power

The district's experiment with "site-based management" and "decentralized decisionmaking" shifts into high gear this fall. Those words are just a fancy way of saying more budget, hiring and curriculum decisions will be made at the school level, where, theoretically, people know their students best and know what they need to improve. Eighteen principals will be the first guinea pigs. Twenty more will be trained this fall, and another 20 this spring. This could be the first step in a revolution. Or another fad that fizzles like disco.

Teacher morale

Teachers in Pinellas are being asked to do more work for less pay. Pinellas froze teacher salaries last year and is proposing a small cut this year, to the chagrin of the teachers union, which wants a small increase. Meanwhile, scheduling changes mean middle and high school teachers will teach additional classes. With unemployment at 11 percent in Pinellas, teachers won't get as much sympathy as usual. But it's fair to ask whether strained labor relations will take a toll on the kids.

New in 2009-2010 school year

Early release day: On Wednesdays, students at all schools will be released one hour and 15 minutes earlier than the rest of the school week. (Schedules may be different at the fundamental schools.)

Schedule changes: Elementary schools, with the exception of Cross Bayou, Walsingham and the fundamentals, will start at 8:35 a.m. and let out at 2:50 p.m., except on Wednesdays. Middle schools, with the exception of the fundamentals, will start at 9:30 a.m. and let out at 4:15 p.m., except on Wednesdays. High schools will start at 7:05 a.m. and let out at 1:50 p.m., except on Wednesdays. For the full list of start and end times, go to www.pcsb.org and then to the section on the home page that says "pcsNEWS."

More physical education: The state is requiring all middle school students to take at least one semester of PE, unless parents opt their kids out.

More virtual education: The state also is requiring all districts to offer full-time virtual school programs this year for students in K-12.

More career and technical education: The district is adding five "centers of excellence" to its high schools this year: centers for wellness and medical professions at Boca Ciega and Palm Harbor University High, and culinary arts programs at Northeast, Osceola and Tarpon Springs.

Back to school challenges in Pinellas County 08/01/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 1, 2009 5:30am]

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