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Hernando alternative school changes focus to computer-assisted learning

BROOKSVILLE — Last month, the STAR Education Center got a new name to reflect a new focus on computer-assisted learning at the alternative school for students with discipline issues.

The plan was to replace at least half of the staffers who teach core subjects in anticipation of landing a federal grant aimed at turning around struggling schools. In recent weeks, STAR principal Debra Harris informed 11 of her 13 teachers that some would likely not be returning when Endeavor Academy opens in the third week of August.

The grant isn't coming through after all, but the district is moving forward with plans to change how students learn at Endeavor — and it will still mean staffing changes, superintendent Bryan Blavatt said.

"It's a matter of looking at our delivery system and is it appropriate for the kinds of kids we're working with," Blavatt said. "What we are hoping to do is shift the paradigm from the way we've done it in the past."

Up until now, the STAR model, for the most part, hinged on placing students in smaller classes. Students also use a software program for credit recovery, but it's still too much of a one-size-fits-all approach, which doesn't work, Blavatt said.

The new approach is to cater to each student's needs, using computer software and one-on-one or small group instruction as part of an individualized education plan.

Blavatt devised a similar system while serving as court liaison for Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in North Carolina in the mid 1990s and saw great success, he said. The Hernando district has already started using a software program called Learning Plans on Demand and has seen improvement.

"Kids in alternative settings are for the most part on all kinds of academic levels, and the only way to get to people with all different academic levels is to use software," he said.

The $1 million federal grant over three years would have gone mainly to provide incentive pay to lure to Endeavor teachers with proven records of raising student assessment scores. These teachers are known in education jargon as "highly effective," but the state isn't expected to release the specific benchmarks for that definition until this summer.

The grant required the district to let go every core academic teacher at STAR and rehire no more than 50 percent. Those rehired needed to be highly effective.

Now that the grant is a bust, the district doesn't have to adhere to those strict guidelines, Blavatt said.

"The teachers we're looking for are the ones who are willing to use the technology and who have a good rapport with the kids," he said.

The district is obligated to find other jobs for the seven teachers with professional contracts. There is no such requirement for the teachers on annual contracts, so they were all given nonreappointment notices.

Overall, the STAR staff is strong and should land safely in other jobs in the district, and some already have, principal Harris said. The teaching positions at Endeavor will be posted in the coming weeks, and STAR staffers who haven't already found jobs can apply.

"I'm confident a lot of our teachers' data will show great gains," she said. "Our chins are up, and in the end we know we're doing what's right for kids."

Endeavor will feature a three-member administrative team with experience in student assessment, behavior and staff development; all will also "roll up their sleeves and work with students as tutors, too," Harris said.

STAR's current budget is $1.46 million. Harris was asked to cut 10 percent of personnel costs for next year's budget, or about $62,000, and met that goal, she said. She will have a total staff of 14. Located near school district headquarters on the north side of Brooksville, the STAR Center served a total of about 200 students this school year.

Physical education will no longer be offered, but students will still get time for physical activity during the day, Harris said. The current small engine repair and woodworking courses will remain.

The local teachers union was initially unhappy with the way the district handled the grant effort, springing the news late in the year that some teachers would be reassigned and others might be out of a job altogether if they didn't find new posts in the district, said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association.

"A lot of (the teachers) were successful in other schools and wanted to help these kids," Vitalo said in an interview last month. "They went over in good faith and this is what they are rewarded with."

Since then, the district agreed, at the union's request, to extend the period in which annual contract teachers are considered internal applicants so they take priority when applying.

"I'm confident that the district is really making an effort to find positions for a lot of our annual contract (employees)," Vitalo said Friday.

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]

Hernando alternative school changes focus to computer-assisted learning 06/04/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 4, 2011 11:46am]
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