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Pinellas School Board impressed by proposal to open two new magnet schools

A proposal to reopen two elementary schools as technology magnets received strong support Tuesday from the Pinellas School Board, setting the stage for a special application period to enroll students in time for the 2014-15 academic year.

Gulf Beaches Elementary in St. Pete Beach and Kings Highway Elementary in Clearwater would reserve the majority of their seats for students in homes that were zoned for the schools when they closed in 2009, or students who live within a few miles of the campuses.

"I think we could fill the schools within two weeks," said Bill Lawrence, director of student assignment.

Dubbed the "Center for Innovation and Digital Learning," the magnet program encompassing both schools would emphasize learning through technology. It would employ the "flipped classroom," wherein students learn lessons online at home, then practice their knowledge during class time.

At a School Board workshop, officials offered new details and an initial cost estimate of $680,000 to get the schools ready. The proposal came to light in December as an answer to the long wait lists and high demand for magnet and fundamental programs in Pinellas.

When Gulf Beaches closed, more than half its students went to a "choice" school such as a magnet, fundamental or charter, rather than enrolling at the nearest traditional school, Azalea Elementary.

Pinellas is hoping to recapture those who left the traditional public school system, reserving 50 percent of seats for students in the former zones and another 20 percent for those living within 3 miles of the schools. The remaining 30 percent would come from larger "application areas" — the south area for Gulf Beaches and the north for Kings Highway.

Gulf Beaches can hold 18 classrooms, or 348 students. Kings Highway would have 28 classrooms and up to 522 students, with half dedicated to a prekindergarten center serving the surrounding elementaries.

"This is so exciting," School Board member Robin Wikle said, expressing a sentiment shared by a board that had few challenges to the plan.

Superintendent Michael Grego said the principal and staff would be chosen based on typical recruiting and hiring processes. The district would work with the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association to identify teachers interested both in technology and starting a new school, Grego said.

As for the facilities, director of operations Michael Bessette said they needed only "sprucing up" and provided the first estimates for the renovations.

It would cost $100,000 to restore Gulf Beaches, and another $167,000 to put the kitchen back in service. Some of the renovations include painting to remove graffiti; evaluating the intercom, plumbing, lighting and fire alarm systems; repairing doors and windows; and fixing the school's grounds.

The price tag is a bit higher at Kings Highway, requiring $250,000 to evaluate and clean the school, as well as carpet and tile the classrooms. Another $163,000 would be needed for the kitchen, funded through the food service department. Neither facility has active camera systems, Bessette noted.

Between salaries and new technology equipment, running the schools would cost a bit more. Officials couldn't provide such an estimate Tuesday. Pam Moore, associate superintendent of teaching and learning, said Grego "was very clear this was not a blank check: 'Don't hand us the Lexus model because we'll turn it back around.' "

The district's annual application period for special programs ended last week, and parents will learn how they fared in February. For the first-time, the district would hold a second application period to enroll students in Gulf Beaches and Kings Highway.

Lawrence said his staff would begin planning that period, to begin in mid March, if the board gave him the nod at its Jan. 28 meeting. School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook indicated that all seven members were in favor of moving forward.

Board members even started talking about school names, with Wikle wondering if Kings Highway would be better off named after a veteran educator. Lawrence said there would be fewer bureaucratic hoops if they kept the original names.

Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner@tampabay.com. Follow her on Twitter @lisagartner.

Pinellas School Board impressed by proposal to open two new magnet schools 01/21/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 22, 2014 12:01am]

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