With just days to go until school starts, Pinellas County's only F-rated high school could be forced to drastically overhaul its teaching ranks after failing to adequately raise student test scores.
Superintendent Julie Janssen said Wednesday that as early as today the state is likely to place Gibbs High School under the most aggressive state oversight possible for a public school — a status known as "intervene."
Only 15 Florida schools were in that category last school year.
While state education officials wouldn't confirm that Gibbs was marked for change, Janssen said staff had pored over data just long enough to suspect the high school was in the crosshairs for two reasons: not earning enough points on FCAT and not enough students testing at or above grade level in reading over five years.
State education officials said they would not comment until they formally release the list of affected schools. But one of the first things they could require Pinellas to do is remove at least half of Gibbs' staff, Janssen said, a major disruption with students set to arrive on campus Tuesday.
"I think we're going to complain to the state over the major task of overhauling the school in three days," Janssen said during a back-to-school news conference at Walsingham Elementary School in Largo.
Standing before a few dozen teachers, she encouraged all Pinellas teachers, students and parents to do their best in 2010-11, in spite of a litany of challenges that include budget cuts and class size caps.
"It's sort of like going on a diet," Janssen said. "Instead of focusing on what you can't have, focus on what you can have."
Perhaps one of the biggest tasks the district faces this year is turning around not only Gibbs but three other high schools — Boca Ciega, Lakewood and Dixie Hollins — all D-rated and all also with some state oversight.
Because Gibbs got an F last year, state officials already have been working with teachers to strengthen instruction, but the state's rules call for more on-site monitoring.
Gibbs principal Kevin Gordon, who was brought in to help lead the school's turnaround, and Janssen both said Wednesday they hope state officials will consider a detailed improvement plan that the school already submitted for 2010-2011.
"I can't imagine them saying you can't use your plan," Janssen said.
That Gibbs is only getting the news now is yet another fallout from the delayed release of Florida Comprehensive Asssessment Test scores this summer.
Superintendents across Florida were already up in arms about the timing and credibility of the scores, which have implications for everything from staffing to student course-load.
"I think it's a little bit thoughtless to do this at this late date," said Janssen, who met with teachers at Gibbs on Wednesday afternoon.
Under state guidelines, if a school decides not to shake up its staff and become a "district turnaround school," it has only three other options.
It could reassign its students to other schools and monitor their progress. It could close and reopen as a charter school. Or, the district could contract with an outside entity to run the school.
Middleton High School in Tampa has been in "intervene" status for two years and reorganized. The state says the school has made progress, but it's unclear whether it's enough.
At Gibbs, Gordon said he's focused on making the school work with what he already believes to be a strong faculty of 150 — many of whom are already new to the school.
"What I do know is that I've got a committed set of teachers here at the school who are willing to roll up their sleeves and get to work," Gordon said. "We had a lot of staff change over the summer. Whether it hits the 50 percent mark or not, I don't know right now."
The teachers that do remain at Gibbs will need to focus on the two problems that landed the school in "intervene."
First, Gibbs earned a total of 395 points in all required categories on the FCAT this year, lower than the 435 needed.
Second, only 33 percent of the students tested at or above grade level in reading. That's two percentage points less than were meeting standards five years ago in 2005-06.
If the school had one of those problems and not the other, it wouldn't face possibly making the notorious list. The school kept steady in math, jumped in writing and slipped a bit in science.
"Basically, what it boiled down to was two percentage points in reading," Gordon said. "Had we had two more percentage points in growth in reading, then we wouldn't have been in intervene."
Teachers were expected to meet this morning at Gibbs to brainstorm strategies. One idea already on the table: extending the school day.
"I think one of the bigger pieces is that we really look at the lowest 25 percent (of students), those who really need intervention," Gordon said. "You need extra help and you need to put in extra time."
He said he is waiting to hear more specifics from the state, but he doesn't anticipate any academic intervention to affect the school's two magnet programs, Pinellas County Center for the Arts or the Business Economic Technology Academy.
To get off the state's "intervene" list, a school like Gibbs must make a C and push one of its student subgroups to make significant improvement in reading and math.
"Can we do that?" Gordon asked. "We absolutely can and we will."
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or firstname.lastname@example.org.