The Pinellas school system is trying to push more than 12,000 students into a sweeping new summer program, targeting children as young as 6 who already show signs of struggling.
The six-week "summer bridge," to be offered at about 60 schools, is the biggest chess move yet from superintendent Michael Grego, who began his tenure in late September. His goal is to narrow the achievement gap by ensuring that poor minority students are keeping their learning skills in tune over the summer.
But Grego's push could be met with pushback. He wants to pay teachers at a fixed rate that could be far below what experienced teachers usually receive. The teachers' union plans to argue for normal salaries.
Grego told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board Monday that he is still sorting through the details but thinks the district needs more than just the usual third-grade reading camps and course-recovery sessions.
"We knew you were struggling in kindergarten, we knew you were struggling in first grade, we knew you were struggling in second grade — why wait?" Grego said.
The school system is drafting a "target list" of struggling students based on a specialized reading assessment for the earliest grades and FCAT scores for older students. Those who score lowest — Level 1 and Level 2 — would make the list, along with students who fail their end-of-course exams.
Grego said the summer program will attempt to reach students by providing a different environment from regular school.
"I hesitate to use the word 'camp' because we're not going to be sitting around a bonfire, but it's not going to be the same old classroom," he said, adding, "It's supposed to be fun while you're learning over the summertime."
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The summer classes are voluntary, but you'd never know that to hear Grego. He's calling ministers, asking for their help steering students into these classes. He's already lassoed several community organizations into offering before and aftercare, to make it easier on working parents.
He called the new program "a huge undertaking" that will open all high schools, most middle schools and more than 30 elementary schools for part of the summer.
School Board member Rene Flowers, who represents some of the poorest areas of Pinellas, said she was working with the local NAACP and Concerned Citizens for Quality Education for Black Students.
"If kids aren't showing up, we're going to knock on those doors. We need to get them there," Flowers said.
The district can't afford to run its entire bus fleet, but may be able to send some buses to high-need areas.
Schools will send packets home to parents later this month. Grego said he plans to begin registration in March.
Watson Haynes, president of the Urban League and former president of Concerned Citizens, said he's happy to see Grego moving quickly despite not having every detail hammered out.
"Here's a man who's doing it, not 10 years from now, but now," Haynes said. "That's the kind of commitment we need."
The lingering question is how much the summer program will cost. Grego said Monday he is uncertain, but puts initial estimates at $1.5 million to $2 million. He wants to draw funding from federal dollars already directed toward poorer schools and to students with disabilities. Grego did not say which programs he would shift the dollars from.
But the price tag of summer bridge could be substantially higher, as teacher salaries make up the lion's share.
Kim Black, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said the teacher contract is clear: Teachers should receive their usual hourly rate during the summer.
Grego declined to tell the Times how much he would offer teachers — just that he was eyeing a flat rate. But Black said she expects the pay to be around what an eighth-year teacher makes, or around $24 an hour. The school system should be seeking out its most experienced teachers to meet challenging students' needs, Black said. Yet this kind of rate would be asking some veterans to take a $12-per-hour pay cut.
"I don't want to send the message of discount teaching," she said.
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The new program would increase the number of summer teaching positions from about 300 to more than 1,250. Black said she supports the program and believes teachers would be happy to work in these classrooms, rather than their usual summer jobs as restaurant workers or Target cashiers.
But "I have concerns about that message it sends," Black said. "Would you offer a doctor a discounted surgical rate to perform operations in the summer? I don't think you would."
Grego is scheduled to meet with the union today. He told a Times reporter that he believes they'll reach an agreement but, if necessary, the program could be scaled down.
"We'll develop a plan and see how far it can take us," he said.
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