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Pinellas seeks college students to staff extended learning programs

To learn more at school, students have to be at school more, and so teachers have to be at school more, before the first bell and after the last. This was the thinking of Pinellas County Schools in giving its campuses $4.5 million this year, a 60 percent funding increase, to expand before- and after-school programs for struggling students.

But then there was a problem. Not enough teachers signed up.

"Unfortunately, the programs are competing for the same available teachers, and not all teachers are available," said Robyn Witcher, a principal on assignment to the human resources department. About 80 positions are open for teaching assignments outside the regular school day, she said.

"The opportunities are growing. The pool of applicants is not."

In place of teachers, the district is looking to pay college students $20 an hour to staff these positions, which the school district characterizes as tutors. Five students from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg were going through the application process as of Friday.

The district has received more than 90 applications from students from a variety of other schools, including Eckerd College, the University of Central Florida, Florida A&M University, Polk Community College and St. Petersburg College.

To qualify, the students must have at least 60 college credits (or junior standing); a minimum 2.5 grade-point average; a positive recommendation from a professor, and a demonstrated interest in working with students.

Witcher said Pinellas would provide the college students with "a generic orientation," then leave specific training up to the individual schools.

Fred Bennett, the community liaison for USF St. Petersburg's College of Education, said the jobs would "refresh a lot of our college kids' skills" and be mutually beneficial.

"This is finals week and crunch time, so all the kids are pretty saddled," he said. But "we hope to start knocking on doors and get 40 or 50 kids."

Providing more seat time for students, particularly those who are struggling, has been a major priority for Pinellas schools this year. Superintendent Mike Grego rolled out the six-week Summer Bridge program, then followed it with Promise Time, an extra 60 to 90 minutes of instruction each day, in 28 high-poverty schools.

The college students are being sought for separate, school-based programs which also have proliferated with more funding. Pinellas schools design their own extended learning programs. For example, Forest Lakes Elementary in Oldsmar is pushing reading during extended learning time, drilling into phonics, fluency and comprehension in small groups.

It's not that teachers don't want to go the proverbial extra mile for their students, said Kim Black, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.

"The issue is, we've seen an unprecedented amount of work added to the teacher's daily life and you can't possibly accomplish it within the 7 1/2-hour day," Black said. "Part of the problem with trying to get more teachers involved in (extended learning programs) is they're struggling to keep up with the requirements of their normal positions."

The tutoring positions, and why so many may be open, are complicated by pay. Twenty dollars an hour is more than what most after-school jobs pay, but well below the average Pinellas teacher's base hourly salary of $29, without factoring in the extra amount they get every year from a special schools property tax.

Negotiations for a new contract with the union stalled in September when the district offered teachers $20 an hour, up from the $15 they were making for extended learning time.

Bill Corbett, deputy superintendent for the district, said the extra work was more tutoring than teaching. Black saw the offer as a ploy for "discounted" teaching.

The issue was tabled until Thursday, when the district and the teachers union reached an agreement: Teachers will earn $20 an hour for the extracurricular work this school year, including back-pay for hours already taught, and earn their normal hourly pay next year, up to $29.

Black said this will make the extended learning openings more attractive to teachers. While she is glad students won't have to go without services thanks to the college students, Black emphasized the value of having a classroom teacher in front of them after-hours.

"We want the student to have adults who can meet their needs," she said. "Having the teacher who they have the relationship with during the day is a much more effective model."

Some of the students signing up from USF St. Petersburg have had experience leading a classroom. Shannon Fouts, a 20-year-old junior, spent the last semester teaching fifth-grade at Bear Creek Elementary in St. Petersburg as part of an internship. The education major expects to teach at a Pinellas middle or high school next spring and fall as well. "The kids were awesome," Fouts said of Bear Creek. "They taught me so much about myself as a person and teacher."

Other USF St. Petersburg students were interested in trying something new, and saw the tutoring program as a way to give back.

Rami Hijadi, a 22-year-old senior studying biology, doesn't want to be a teacher and has never worked with children before. "It's a way of helping, it's a good thing to do. … I think I'd be good at it," he said.

Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner@tampabay.com. You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).

Pinellas seeks college students to staff extended learning programs 12/08/13 [Last modified: Sunday, December 8, 2013 9:27pm]
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