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Pinellas academic blueprint approved

The Pinellas County School Board late Tuesday unanimously approved superintendent Julie Janssen's overall plan to beef up academic programs — but not before shooting down two more pieces of the plan that left it less ambitious than anyone wanted.

Board members voted 4-3 to nix shrinking the size of the International Baccalaureate program at Palm Harbor University High and reopening Kings Highway Elementary in Clearwater as a fundamental school.

Janssen clearly felt stung.

After board member Linda Lerner asked for her recommendation on another matter later in the meeting, Janssen quipped, "I'm not sure my recommendation matters. We've had a lot of major things voted down."

The superintendent acknowledged her frustration after the meeting.

"I think there's not much boldness left," she said of the plan. "The ones that brought attention, everyone of them went down."

But Janssen tried to look on the bright side, noting that it was a five-year effort. "It's still good. We'll work through it. We're not done," she said.

Unveiled in September, Janssen's student assignment plan won immediate kudos for being ambitious and sweeping. But then it came under localized fire, again and again, from parents and teachers who weren't consulted beforehand. They complained that thorough research wasn't done and viable alternatives weren't considered.

Janssen and School Board members conceded that a flawed decisionmaking process created unnecessary angst, and promised a more orderly "way of work" will be in place soon.

But in the meantime, they took this view: Despite the fights, and despite several proposals going down in flames, the plan as a whole was still a solid first step in offering more high-quality programs to more students.

"If this were the only year I'd feel we tied the hands of the superintendent, but with it being a five-year plan things can still be tweaked in a way that's acceptable," Cook said.

Among other things, it establishes a new IB program at Largo High, an integrated technology program at Countryside High and new fundamental schools-within-a-school at Boca Ciega and Dunedin high schools. It also creates a new application process for parents to get their kids into magnet and fundamental schools.

Parents continued to make their case at the board meeting.

About a dozen parents from Jamerson Elementary in St. Petersburg spoke out against plans to end the unwritten practice of giving Jamerson students priority preference into Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School. The practice, in place for three years, has some fundamental school students worried that Jamerson students may displace those from fundamental schools who also have priority preference.

"Give it more time. Give us more input," Brighitte Whipple, a teacher at Jamerson with twin fifth-graders at the school, told the board.

On Tuesday night, the board voted 7-0 to continue the feeder pattern for a year while other options are explored.

On the IB program at Palm Harbor and the Kings Highway proposal, the board majority didn't need any prodding.

Janssen originally proposed that the IB program be moved to Countryside High to ease overcrowding at Palm Harbor and to give more students who live in Palm Harbor access to the school that is closest to them. But after IB parents pounced, Janssen offered a compromise: Keep it at Palm Harbor, but reduce its size.

The board said no Tuesday night, despite pleas from members Robin Wikle and Peggy O'Shea. New board members Terry Krassner and Lew Williams joined Lerner and Janet Clark in the majority.

Downsizing the IB program "will affect the integrity of the program, absolutely," Lerner said.

Deputy superintendent Jim Madden said leaving the IB program at its current size will create challenges as the district moves forward with the thorny next step: rezoning schools. District staff is hoping to bring a rezoning proposal to the board in January.

Keeping the IB as is "will affect what we can bring to you in January ... because we'd be adding more kids to an already overcrowded school," Madden said.

"I feel like the fat lady really has sung," Deena Ewing, one of about a dozen Palm Harbor IB parents in the audience, said after the vote.

On Kings Highway, it was again Krassner and Williams who tilted the balance. Both raised financial concerns, given the cost of opening a new school in another tough budget year.

"There has to be a time we draw a line in the sand" on new costs, Williams said.

Janssen said the school would attract private school parents who are now sitting on fundamental school waiting lists — and as a result bring money into the district. But that argument didn't win out, drawing a rare rebuke from Wikle.

"I'm very disillusioned with the School Board," she said, noting a waiting list of more than 600 students at Curtis Fundamental Elementary in Clearwater alone.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Pinellas academic blueprint approved 12/08/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 8, 2010 12:10am]
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