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Pinellas' teacher training overhaul struggles to gain traction

One of Pinellas superintendent Julie Janssen's leading initiatives — creating a national model for teacher training — continued to come under fire Thursday, put in the crosshairs because of budget woes, tensions with School Board members and some of Janssen's own missteps.

Members peppered her at a special workshop with more questions about the district's direction, particularly with a much-hyped partnership with the University of Florida's Lastinger Center for Learning.

For weeks, they've asked for evidence that the venture is rubbing off on student achievement in high-poverty schools. But it wasn't until the workshop — more than a week after the board postponed a vote on two Lastinger contracts — that Janssen's administration offered a plan that outlined how it would evaluate the program in coming months.

"This is a good start … but it would have been helpful if we saw this before we had the discussion at the board meeting," board member Linda Lerner said. "Again the board finds itself making important decisions … without the basic information."

"This has been going on for three years," board member Terry Krassner said. (The partnership actually started in 2007.) "Where was this (evaluation plan) three years ago?"

It remains to be seen whether the Lastinger contracts will survive a board vote next week. But Janssen said after the workshop that she hoped the additional information will get the project back on track.

"This piece is the heart and soul of what I believe is the right thing to do," she said.

Since becoming superintendent in fall 2008, Janssen has pushed to overhaul teacher training, both to jump-start anemic gains in student achievement, especially in poor schools, and put Pinellas back on the map as a forward-thinking district.

The idea has potential.

Other districts have overlooked professional development as they've grabbed flashier pieces of the teacher quality puzzle, like tenure or evaluations. Some experts say teacher training is ripe for reform. Many teachers are fans.

A recent flood of teacher e-mails to district offices reflects that. "Overwhelmingly, they're positive," board member Peggy O'Shea said.

But in the past two years, Janssen's lofty goal has been deflated by snags both big and small.

• In fall 2009, she recommended hiring Janet Hernandez, an acquaintance from graduate school, to head professional development. Accused of creating a climate of fear, Hernandez was removed in fall 2010 and resigned a few months later. But a state review of professional development in Pinellas concluded that leadership instability had a "significant negative impact" on the district's efforts.

• In February, if not earlier, School Board members began asking Janssen for details about the cost of the Lastinger partnership. The superintendent did not produce them for months. Now board members are left to consider whether they can afford to help 124 teachers earn master's degrees (a big chunk of the proposed $1.6 million contracts) when 17,000 other district employees may be forced to take furloughs.

• In March, the state Department of Education issued its periodic review of professional development in Pinellas, but board members did not know about it until it was posted last week on the St. Petersburg Times education blog, the Gradebook. The overall results were mixed, but the reviewers — mostly officials from other school districts — gave Pinellas the lowest ratings possible on standards that relate to gauging the impact of professional development on student performance.

"To me, this is urgent," Lerner said, holding up a copy of the review. "We just can't keep working like this."

Janssen said the district has already responded in writing to the state's concerns. She said failure to get the board the state review was an oversight. "We won't let it happen again," she said.

She also said the professional development department —- which has a new director, Lisa Grant, formerly the principal at Gulfport Elementary —- is now poised to gain traction.

"I believe we have the structure in place," Janssen said.

The Lastinger partnership also got a plug Thursday from an influential group in the black community whose leaders strongly back Janssen.

The program benefits several predominantly black schools in St. Petersburg and should not be eliminated when it "may well be contributing to our positive direction," read a statement from the Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students.

Handed to board members by deputy superintendent Jim Madden, the statement mentioned recent legal agreements that are part of a long-running desegregation case.

"We fully understand that these are tight budget times," it said, "but the principles of equitable funding which run throughout the memoranda of understanding require that programs designed to benefit poor students and to reduce the effects of the racial achievement gap should not fall victim to the Board's other budget concerns."

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Pinellas' teacher training overhaul struggles to gain traction 08/04/11 [Last modified: Friday, August 5, 2011 12:31am]
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