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Janssen's plans for Melrose Elementary has some worried

Almost everyone agrees: Melrose Elementary in St. Petersburg needs a boost. Based on the latest state test scores, it may be headed for an F grade.

But superintendent Julie Janssen's rescue plan — converting it into a "lab" school with the University of Florida — has made teachers anxious, parents apprehensive and School Board members frustrated.

It's not the idea, they said. It's how it was handled.

Now the venture, which the district said in brochures and on its website would happen this fall, is being postponed for a year.

"Here we go again," said board member Lew Williams. "Throwing something out without vetting it."

In comments that echo district turmoil in the fall, School Board members said they and the Melrose community should have been told more about the plan earlier. They also said they should have given the green light before top district officials proceeded so far, including telling Melrose teachers in April that they'd have to re-interview for their jobs.

"I just feel like we've been out of the loop," said member Janet Clark.

Janssen said the changes did not need board approval.

"This is really an academic issue. This is about the curriculum piece. It's about how teachers teach," she said. "The board is not normally involved at that level."

Janssen told the staff at Melrose this week she's holding off on the bulk of the changes until fall 2012. She said there were too many variables in flux, including whether some first- and second-year teachers will be rehired or reassigned, and who will replace the principal who is retiring.

She also said former regional superintendent Carol Thomas — who resigned last month after an investigation — was heavily involved with the project.

"When things change, we have to change with it," Janssen said.

A C-graded school last year, Melrose has one of the most challenging demographics in Pinellas, with 93 percent of its students last year eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Its journalism magnet is highly regarded, but also hasn't done much to diversify enrollment, raise test scores or slow a revolving door of teachers. Principal Oscar Robinson said based on the latest state test scores, the school's next grade may be an F.

Janssen's solution includes tons of teacher training.

Melrose teachers would learn to beef up their skills, in line with what UF's Lastinger Center is already offering dozens of teachers throughout Pinellas schools. The school would have a professor in residence. A brochure handed to school staff called it the "Melrose Professional Development Academy."

The academy will ensure that "all students have exemplary teachers every year and that all students excel," it reads.

Janssen included the Melrose-UF venture — though with no detail — in an ambitious list of proposed new academic programs unveiled in September. It was discussed little, if at all, by the board. It quietly fell off the radar.

A handful of other programs, however, were scrapped after parents and teachers, in a series of highly publicized disputes with the district, complained of being blindsided.

In response, Janssen and the board agreed in December to a scripted decisionmaking process that involved more input and better communication. In February, they agreed in writing that "surprises" for the superintendent and board members will be the exception to the rule.

But now, four months later, board members are saying they should have known more, sooner, about the Melrose plan.

Member Linda Lerner has asked district staffers in writing about the project. Among her questions: How much will it cost? And when will it come to the board for approval? She said she's still waiting for answers.

"I've gotten absolutely nothing," she said.

Williams said he "jumped for joy" when he heard about the plan in April. Finally, he thought, something to make the school viable. Then Janssen put on the brakes.

"We have to vet these things … before we roll it out," Williams said. "Now to say, 'Oh, no, we have to look at it for a year'? That's frustrating to me."

Board members aren't the only ones feeling uncomfortable.

Christopher Henderson, a PTA member with two nephews at Melrose, said parents would embrace a promising new program. He personally thought better teaching training was on point. But the dearth of detail — and lack of answers to questions — left parents concerned, he said.

"We'd like to be in the know as to how (progress) is going to be achieved," he said. "We don't want surprises."

Henderson agreed with Janssen's decision to postpone. So did Lerner. So did teachers union president Kim Black.

"I really do think she realizes the anxiety" that the project caused, Black said.

Janssen said the extra time will allow the district and UF to better plan the project, and get input from teachers and others.

"I really think it's a better way to roll it out," she said.

Reach Ron Matus at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Janssen's plans for Melrose Elementary has some worried 06/08/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 9, 2011 1:17am]

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