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.
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.
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.
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.