Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Education

Pasco school chief would prefer no state intervention at failing school

LAND O'LAKES — Please leave.

That's Pasco school superintendent Kurt Browning's request to the Florida Department of Education. He contends the state has spent two years advising struggling Lacoochee Elementary School, and its efforts have only brought the school closer to a third consecutive D grade.

"If I'm going to be held accountable, then where is the accountability on the state's part?" said Browning, who recently ordered the restaffing of Lacoochee's faculty and administration.

He made his point clear in a letter to Florida Education Commissioner Tony Bennett.

"I need to let you know that having the state DA (differentiated accountability) team in the school has not helped and in most cases added to the anxiety of the school," Browning wrote. "My request to you is that you remove the DA team from Lacoochee Elementary School and allow us the opportunity to turn this school around."

The job will be difficult, he acknowledged. But he said the district staff is up to the task.

"I feel strongly that we will not get where we need to be as long as the state is in our school," he said.

Bennett responded that he recognized the stresses of trying to improve a school with persistently low student test results, as Lacoochee has seen. And he said he appreciated Browning's commitment to the school.

But his answer was, "No."

He cited the section of statute that requires the state to provide "uniform accountability standards" and "assistance of escalating intensity" to low-performing schools.

That did not mean Browning's appeal fell on deaf ears, though.

"I assure you that I take your concerns very seriously," Bennett wrote. "I believe one of our responsibilities as a state agency is to model the type of continuous improvement activities we wish to see implemented in the districts we serve."

He said he would make Lacoochee "one of our first case studies for purposes of improving the relevance, efficacy and consistency of supports we offer."

Browning said he has begun conversations with the department's school improvement office to find a compromise.

State Senate Education Committee chairman John Legg, R-Pasco County, suggested that's the best approach, because the Legislature is unlikely to change the law.

"He wants a chance to have his leadership team address it. If I were him, I'd probably ask the same thing," Legg said. "But the reality of it is, it has been a failing school. To give it back to the same organization that has allowed it to be failing for so long is problematic."

That wouldn't be prudent state policy, he added, saying that the law is in place to ensure struggling schools get support.

Other area school districts have not made similar requests, though they've occasionally been tempted.

"We work through the issues and we're making progress," said Hillsborough school district spokesman Stephen Hegarty, whose district has had state accountability teams in several schools over the years.

District officials are awaiting the next round of FCAT results, due today, to determine the next steps for Lacoochee and other schools facing added turnaround measures.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

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