Pinellas teachers voice questions, grievances for superintendent

School superintendent Julie Janssen responds to questions and complaints during a meeting with teachers from a number of Pinellas schools at St. Petersburg High on Monday.

DIRK SHADD | Times

School superintendent Julie Janssen responds to questions and complaints during a meeting with teachers from a number of Pinellas schools at St. Petersburg High on Monday.

They talked of running through material so fast that students can't absorb it.

They said they have less and less time to respond to parents.

They complained that politicians are controlling what they teach.

"When we're stressed to the breaking point, sometimes it's hard to be kind," said Jennifer Luther, a Countryside High School chemistry teacher. "And when we have all these expectations of us, it's hard to be helpful."

Pinellas teachers voiced frustrations last week during a meeting with school superintendent Julie Janssen. She visited with about 60 teachers at Dunedin and St. Petersburg high schools as part of a listening tour organized by the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.

Janssen told teachers that their primary responsibility was to keep kids engaged. "Our job is to educate kids," she told about 35 teachers at Dunedin High. "Are they more difficult? Absolutely, 100 percent. Are they less civil? Yes. How do we control that? You can only control what you have in front of you."

The teachers persisted, saying things had gotten out of hand:

"My teaching has changed ... because I'm so regulated, and my students are doing worse and worse and worse every year," said Pinellas Park High School English teacher Nancy Velardi. "My kids are doing okay on the tests, but I can't reach them anymore because I'm not allowed to do what I know works. That's what breaks my heart."

A lot of teachers knocked a scheduling change, put into place this year, that requires them to teach six of seven periods (versus five of six periods). The change was made in part because of budget cuts, and in part to give high school students more opportunities to take electives.

Is there a way "to phase this out, so we can get back to teaching what's physically possible for us and not burn us out?" asked Gaye Burnsed, the science department chair at St. Petersburg High.

Janssen said at least in the short term, six of seven is here to stay "in some way, shape or form." It's needed to help students graduate with 24 credits in four years. But she also said she realizes teachers need more planning time.

"We've got to build a schedule (where) you're not exhausted, the kids aren't exhausted, and everyone isn't just frustrated. Because then we're like rats on a treadmill," she said. "We have to break away from that if we're going to … keep our energy level and have synergy with our students."

Longer term, Janssen said there might be other ways to deal with the time issue — perhaps by requiring that high school students take at least one class online.

"Let's talk about maybe having every child take an online class," she said. "So they take it online and they come to class six periods a day. Maybe that would be an answer."

The big topic at the St. Petersburg High meeting, which 25 teachers attended: Florida's application for the Race to the Top, a competitive, $4.35 billion federal grant program that Janssen says could bring Pinellas up to $21 million over four years.

The big problem: uncertainty over how it will affect teachers.

Among other changes, Florida's application mandates that participating school districts revamp how they evaluate teachers. The kicker: The state says districts must base at least 50 percent of a teacher's performance on how well his or her students do on standardized tests.

Janssen said superintendents were led to believe in discussions with Florida Department of Education officials last year that they would have more flexibility than that to design their own evaluation plans.

"What we saw come back from the state was more of a mandate on how your evaluation is going to be," she told teachers. "And what we want is the ability to design our own plan, side by side, at the table with our union."

But here's the rub, Janssen continued. It appears state officials are moving toward the requirements they've outlined for Race to the Top anyway. So if districts don't agree to the state's application, they will lose out on the federal money but still may have to make the changes.

"The bad side of that is, if we aren't at the table, we don't get to have a voice" in shaping those mandates, she said.

On Thursday, the Pinellas County School Board voted 7-0 to sign the memorandum of understanding that is part of the state's application for Race to the Top.

Several board members voiced strong objections but were apparently reassured when told there would be opportunities to drop out later. "I can still say no," board chair Janet Clark said.

Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at lapeter@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8640.

Pinellas teachers voice questions, grievances for superintendent 01/09/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 9, 2010 3:31am]

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