Wednesday, April 25, 2018

In Pinellas and Hillsborough, troubled schools face state intervention

Seven schools in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties are facing severe penalties from the state after failing to improve their test scores.

The solution? Education's version of a Hail Mary pass.

In each of the five Pinellas schools, the entire faculty, from the principal to the classroom teachers, will be dismissed — only getting to keep their jobs if they reapply, and are rehired. An advisory board, including community members, will be formed to provide recommendations to the superintendents. And the schools, all D and F's, will be under the state's microscope until things start to improve.

Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego called the state's mandated turnaround plan "extremely prescriptive." But it's still the least dramatic of the choices, which include closing a school, converting it to a charter or hiring an outside company to run it.

Hillsborough is subject to the same state intervention but has proposed a different tack, maintaining that the district has the authority to make its own decisions about staffing.

Statewide, there are 27 chronically low-performing schools that must submit a turnaround plan for the coming school year. In Pasco County, superintendent Kurt Browning announced earlier this week that he was dismissing the entire administration and faculty at Lacoochee Elementary.

In Pinellas, three F-rated schools — Maximo Elementary, Melrose Elementary and Azalea Middle — are on the state's list. So are two D-rated schools, Pinellas Park Middle and Fairmount Park Elementary.

Two schools in Hillsborough County — Potter Elementary and Sligh Middle — were required to submit plans after Potter received its third consecutive D and Sligh got an F following two D grades.

Each school district is responding differently to the state's plan.

Grego said he will require all of the principals and teachers to reapply for their jobs. Area superintendents will visit the schools Wednesday to inform the faculty. He said the process shouldn't be viewed as an indictment of the teachers.

"We're asking teachers to want to be there," Grego said.

Some of the schools on the list have struggled with high turnover and a large number of requests from instructional staffers who want out. At Melrose Elementary, for instance, 29 out of 41 members of the instructional staff asked for transfers for the coming year. At Maximo Elementary, 30 of 56 did.

Board member Peggy O'Shea said the affected schools have a lot of good teachers. But she said the state's accountability system has put a lot of pressure on teachers to perform "sometimes based on things they don't have any control over." All of the schools in Pinellas have a high rate of students on subsidized lunch; poverty often means that students come to school behind their peers.

"You just try and get the best match and what works for students," O'Shea said.

Pinellas officials also are talking to the teachers union about how to recruit the best teachers to work in the five schools, Ron Ciranna, the district's head of human resources, wrote in an email. The schools will be required by the state to offer incentive pay, which could include a $3,000 recruitment bonus and the chance to get an additional $2,000 school improvement bonus.

In Hillsborough, school officials didn't commit to changes in leadership at its two troubled schools. Rather, the documents submitted to the state say, "The superintendent will decide whether or not to retain the principal, assistant principals, and school level coaches" based on student achievement data. Similarly, the plans state that the superintendent, using data available, "will continue to exercise her current authority to replace relevant staff, as necessary."

The district agreed to take other steps mandated by the state, such as providing extra funding for the troubled schools and sending teachers to summer training.

But its action plan suggests that many of those things would happen anyway as part of the district's normal practice.

"We have a lot of experience in turning schools around," said district spokesman Stephen Hegarty.

Middleton High School, for example, spent years on a watch list and went through a state-approved turnaround before it earned its most recent grade, a B.

"We've done more than one of these, we've gotten results and the state knows that," Hegarty said.

Although the state's plan requires that principals be replaced and teachers reapply for their jobs, the process on the ground might not be that dramatic for employees. Grego said it could be as simple as a principal calling in a teacher and saying, "You're in."

At Azalea Middle, principal Connie Kolosey said Friday that her staff members hadn't been told yet. She emphasized that this was not her decision.

"For those people that are working their hearts and souls out for their kids, the process devalues that effort," she said. "Even though in the end it will all be okay, it feels like something negative."

Only in her second year as the chief at Azalea, Kolosey plans to reapply for her job. While she's worried about creating instability for the children through staff turnover, she also acknowledged that the school needs to try new things to give students a better education.

Kolosey said she has been working hard to improve Azalea's standing.

This year, she's had teachers plan lessons together, then observe one of their colleagues giving that lesson to students and critique what went right or wrong.

She spent a week visiting all of the middle school's 58 language arts classes, telling students to take their time on the FCAT and talking to them about what it means to be an F school.

"I told them that if every student in this school made a gain in reading and math, we could be an A school," Kolosey said. "I think it heartened them because it gave them a plan, like, hey, we don't have to be an F school."

David Smith, whose sons are in prekindergarten and the second grade at Maximo Elementary, said he was against the sweeping change in staff. The state's "biggest downfall," he said, was that it ignored realities outside the classroom.

"Believe it or not, with the economy the way it is, parents don't have as much time to spend" on schools, Smith said. "You can't put all the pressure on the teachers."

Daphne Freeman has a daughter in kindergarten and a nephew in the third grade at Maximo. An F school, Maximo was not Freeman's first choice; she tried to get her daughter into Sanderlin Elementary, a "B" school, where her older son went.

But Freeman says Maximo's faculty has reached out to her with family events and parent nights.

"Just because Sanderlin has a better grade doesn't mean all the teachers and everything are better," Freeman said. "Now that she's at Maximo, I wouldn't take her out."

Staff Writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this story. Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8846. Follow her on Twitter @Fitz_ly.

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