LARGO — The kids are gone for the summer, and now, amid the oddly quiet hallways of Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School, the adults get to learn. Nineteen teachers stand in a circle on the shiny cafeteria floor.
Randy Thompson takes out a squishy ball and tells each teacher to throw it to someone else. Next, he pours out a bag of balls and feeds them into the circle one by one.
Each time a ball comes his or her way, the teacher must throw to the same person as before.
About 20 balls go flying as the teachers laugh and yelp, scrambling to complete the exercise. Somewhere inside the chaotic scrum is a pattern.
It's a good way to teach math, says Thompson, an education consultant who has worked as a principal, curriculum coordinator, coach and calculus teacher.
He has used the "juggle" to teach probability concepts and number combinations, and says there are ways to adapt it for other subjects.
By the end of the game, kids are slapping high-fives "and the mind is in gear," Thompson says.
The exercise, part of a two-day training earlier this month, offered a taste of what Pinellas officials say will be the norm at the district's 24 middle schools within the next five years. They envision longer classes, more hands-on learning and less time lecturing.
The change begins on a small scale this year, part of a controversial realignment of the middle school schedule set to start when classes resume Aug. 19. Most Pinellas middle schools will switch from a six-period day to seven periods.
Teachers who previously taught five classes will be required to teach six, which means more students and more papers to grade with no raise.
District officials say the change will be good for students and could improve life for teachers. But many teachers remain skeptical.
The move is partly an effort to reform middle schools, partly a response to the district's budget crisis and partly a way to better accommodate state-mandated PE and remedial classes for middle schoolers.
More periods leave room for more elective classes, which are seen as tools to get kids more engaged in school. Years of data emerging from the accountability movement show that too many students leave middle school uninspired. They stall in ninth grade and eventually drop out, unable to see how school will improve their lives.
"We want them to have the opportunity to explore; that's what middle school's all about," said Stephanie Joyner, director of middle school education.
It's also about money. By requiring middle school teachers to be in classes a larger percentage of the day, the district won't have to hire as many teachers for 2008-09. The savings is estimated at $2.2-million.
The teachers union has called the change a "radical move" that violates its contract and was approved without adequate communication or planning.
Middle school teachers complain they are being asked to develop elective classes on the fly and are bearing the brunt of the budget cuts.
What began as reform has evolved into a misguided effort to save money, Yvette Derollo, a math teacher at Southside Fundamental Middle School, told the School Board this month, echoing many of her colleagues.
"The frustration level is building, and there's no relief in sight," she said. "And now I feel thrown under the bus."
Board members told her there was nowhere else to go as they looked for ways to cut $43-million from the budget.
Joyner said the change is the result of more than two years of work that sprang from reform summits attended by teachers from every middle school.
"It's nothing new," she said. "It's just that some people have not been willing to listen or hear."
Waiting another year would delay a much-needed revamping of middle schools, she said.
To make the schedule change more palatable, some schools will go to a "block" schedule instead of a straight seven-period day with 48-minute classes. By "blocking" two days worth of classes into one, you get a 90-minute class two or three times a week.
Longer classes allow teachers to drill deeper with hands-on exercises. Thompson said struggling students get more attention and gifted students get richer instruction. With fewer class changes, hallway discipline problems decline.
But teaching a longer class takes training because it's difficult to keep middle school kids engaged for 90 minutes unless you know what you're doing. That's why the district hired Thompson, a block scheduling expert who trained about 200 teachers earlier this month and will train another 250 in August.
Joyner said the change will unfold gradually, with schools adopting the block concept as word spreads and staffs become comfortable with it.
One apparent convert is Kim Richards, a department head and teacher at Tyrone Middle School, where the staff left for the summer in turmoil over the unsettled schedule.
"I was apprehensive at first. But after seeing the different options and actually seeing them in play, it makes sense," said Richards, one of 19 teachers in Thompson's circle game. "This is going to give (students) a better opportunity to see the concept and apply it."
Thompson's sessions are filled with lesson ideas that go beyond traditional chalk talk. There's the writing assignment where students compose the first line of a story on a folder, then tape it to their backs for classmates to finish. There's the math exercise where students are given a number and must fit an equation to equal it on 11 placards.
He suggests tests that invite students to show their knowledge through a song, a standup reporter routine or a collage. The kids get to choose which one, and they remember the material much better, Thompson says.
"I haven't changed the subject at all," he says. "What I've done is changed the way you think about the subject — a lot."