Two Pinellas elementary schools, closed by the district just five years ago, would reopen as technology magnet schools under a proposal by superintendent Mike Grego.
Undergoing decades of declining enrollment, the school district has not opened a new school in 10 years. But amid a broader push to increase specialty options for students, Grego is proposing that Gulf Beaches and Kings Highway elementaries be reborn next fall as special programs requiring that students apply to get in.
As "model schools of technology," Gulf Beaches and Kings Highway would together enroll as many as 864 elementary school students from throughout the county, according to drafts of Grego's plans. In coming years, both campuses also could serve middle school students.
"That's what we're in the business for — we're in business to try to serve the choices of parents," Grego said.
Students at each school would receive a laptop or tablet through which they would access online programs geared to boosting reading skills and FCAT performance. And through a practice known as the "flipped classroom," students would watch views or Web programs online outside of school when traditionally they would be doing homework, then use this information during class. In effect, this extends the school day.
Gulf Beaches, the only public school serving the barrier islands, and Kings Highway elementaries were closed in 2009 along with six other campuses. In 2011, then-superintendent Julie Janssen proposed turning both into fundamental schools but could not garner support.
School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook said the board was ambivalent about creating more fundamental schools, which draw students from throughout the county. Cook said she wanted an option that would serve students living near the schools, particularly in the case of Gulf Beaches.
Grego emphasized that neither Gulf Beaches nor Kings Highway would be neighborhood schools, although he is open to giving preference to applicants who live near the campuses.
In his second year as school chief, Grego has pushed new, niche magnet programs in an effort to make schools more attractive to parents. The district already has approved four specialty middle school programs to open next fall, including two tech-centric programs at Pinellas Park Middle and Azalea Middle.
The goal, Grego said, is to create quality K-12 "feeder patterns" that align programs from elementary to high school. "There's a need, there's a draw, and if there's a specialized niche, we'll explore it," he said.
Many of the school district's existing special programs receive more applications than they can accept. Board documents show that 27 percent of Gulf Beaches' K-3 students enrolled at a nearby magnet, fundamental or charter school after the A-rated school closed. Another 21 percent left the public school system, while a meager 16 percent enrolled at their new zoned school, Azalea.
In addition to proximity, the district also is considering giving preference to applicants in current special programs or on wait lists for them. Because of timing, the district could conduct a second application period in March or April for Gulf Beaches and Kings Highway. The application period for established special programs is Jan. 8-17.
Grego is scheduled to introduce the proposal to the School Board at a workshop on Thursday. The board, if amenable, could decide to approve the plan at a future meeting.
Cook said she is leaning toward supporting Grego's proposal. "The initial (thought) is, we closed this a few years ago, what's going to be different and why are we opening it now?" she said.
But Cook says she believes Pinellas could get back most of the students who left the district when Gulf Beaches and Kings Highway closed. The issue of low enrollment would be solved by drawing students countywide.
However, Cook said she had questions about what exactly the technology program would look like, how students would get to and from the schools, whether the buildings would need repairs, and what the price tag would be.
"There's always a price tag," she said. "But if we can offer the kind of things that will spark interest in a child and allow them to explore that while getting an education, then I think that's a bonus, and that's what we're looking for."
Contact Lisa Gartner at email@example.com. You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).