Thursday, November 23, 2017
Education

Pinellas School Board shelves the idea of more fundamentals

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Neighbors in Pinellas, north and south, are no strangers to the debate surrounding fundamental schools. These "back to basics" campuses have stricter dress codes and discipline policies while requiring parents to attend monthly meetings.

The demand for more of them is high. Waiting lists are long. And parents have called on the district to expand fundamental schools, an idea not without its pros and cons.

But on Tuesday, the long-running conversation effectively came to an end as Pinellas School Board members agreed on a future that includes an influx of magnet schools instead.

Presented with the plan at a Tuesday workshop, board members said they did not want to create more fundamental schools in the district. Their discussion was prompted by board member Robin Wikle, who brought up the absence of fundamentals in the proposal.

"If this is what we're going to approve going forward for '14, '15, '16, I do believe the conversation is over," Wikle said. "This board is saying, 'We are going to keep the fundamentals we have, we're going to support them all the way, but at this time Pinellas County is moving another way.' "

The district's plan would set up new application programs at four schools to open in the 2016-17 school year. In St. Petersburg, Tyrone Middle would become a technology magnet, while International Baccalaureate programs would take root at three schools: Largo Middle and Mildred Helms Elementary in Largo, as well as John Hopkins Middle in St. Petersburg.

In 2017-18, district officials want to open a performing arts center at Sandy Lane Elementary in Clearwater, similar to the successful program at Perkins Elementary in St. Petersburg.

District staff is looking into more potential magnet programs at Belleair, Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose elementary schools. It also could open a second magnet program at Sandy Lane.

The district is receiving a federal grant to use a magnet-driven curriculum to increase the racial and socioeconomic diversity at schools predominantly attended by minority students from low-income families. A key part of the plan is applying for a Magnet Schools Assistance Grant in 2015-16, said Bill Lawrence, director of student assignment.

"We recognize we have some schools that are not as diverse as we'd like them to be," he said.

Additionally, Lawrence said the district was pleased to set up feeder patterns to provide families a K-12 path through their education. For example, the district is hoping students who attend the new technology magnets at Gulf Beaches and Kings Highway elementaries will then apply for seats at Tyrone Middle's technology program.

In a survey of families who applied for seats at specialty programs this year, more than 3,000 people responded to the question, "(W)hat future curriculum do you think would best suit your child's interests, talents and abilities?"

Parents checked boxes saying they wanted to see programs in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, and the performing arts, as well as leadership and character education.

Fundamental schools were not listed as a program parents could select, even though many of the respondents were applying for seats at fundamental schools. Lawrence explained that the federal grant does not apply to fundamental schools, since they offer the standard curriculum.

But parents left comments in 75 places on the survey asking for more fundamentals anyway:

"More fundamental programs should be offered. Many parents are afraid to send their student to zoned schools due to some of the students and behavior issues at the school."

"We are just disappointed every year when we fail to get our gifted child into a fundamental program."

"I just think it should not be a lottery, and if you have so many parents wanting fundamental schools for their children, the system should be changed."

Said Wikle to her colleagues: "It's a conversation that the public is having, yet we're having a parental choice conversation and 'fundamental' is not even in the makeup."

School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook said she believes the new magnets could become such attractive options for parents that they would alleviate the wait lists at fundamentals, decreasing the demand for them.

Rene Flowers, the School Board member who represents the district's lowest-achieving schools, in St. Petersburg, said she opposed creating more fundamentals because students can be kicked out if their parents can't fulfill their obligations.

"I don't want the child penalized because the parent can't get to where they are," Flowers said.

School Board member Linda Lerner said she would support only fundamental "school within school" programs, such as the ones at Boca Ciega and Dunedin high schools.

Afterward, superintendent Mike Grego said the board had given him the direction to increase diversity at schools by looking at magnet options, so that is would he would do.

The conversation was over.

Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] Follow @lisagartner.

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