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Q&A: school improvement plans

Melinda White, 13, left, and Susan Rimensnyder, 12, dust a glass bottle to lift fingerprints from the scene of a mock crime as part of a seventh-grade science lab at Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School in Largo on Thursday. Weekly hands-on science labs are one of the action steps listed in Morgan Fitzgerald’s improvement plan.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Melinda White, 13, left, and Susan Rimensnyder, 12, dust a glass bottle to lift fingerprints from the scene of a mock crime as part of a seventh-grade science lab at Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School in Largo on Thursday. Weekly hands-on science labs are one of the action steps listed in Morgan Fitzgerald’s improvement plan.

For nearly three decades, Pinellas schools have each crafted blueprints outlining strategies to guide them in raising student achievement. Often, school improvement plans have simply disappeared into filing cabinets or gathered dust. But the lengthy documents are getting a makeover this year.

They must now become "living documents" to be revised whenever new data on student achievement — or the lack thereof — indicates the need to change the plan.

The documents should be "powerful plans that will make a difference for schools," said chief academic officer Cathy Fleeger.

Yet she acknowledged that two months into the school year, some of the plans need work. "We've found that some schools' plans are incomplete," Fleeger said. "The schools need to go much deeper, and so we'll continue to work with them."

Nevertheless, the School Board approved the plans at a meeting last week without discussion.

The push to develop better school improvement plans is partly due to the state's increased focus on accountability. State education officials warn that failing to focus on the plans now could hurt schools in the long run.

"Your school improvement plan is your road map to success," said Nikolai Vitti, deputy chancellor of school improvement for the Florida Department of Education. "If you don't have a road map, you're going to get lost."

Here are some questions and answers about improvement plans.

Why do schools write them?

The state requires it. This year, schools had to file plans by Sept. 11.

Who writes the plan?

Teachers usually write the plan with help from their principal.

What typically is included in a school improvement plan?

Each plan should include "action steps" indicating what the school intends to do for its lowest-performing students in the areas of reading, math, writing and science. They also should spell out how the school will handle discipline issues. Additionally, schools should include a strategy for closing the achievement gap between black and white students.

What are some characteristics of a good plan?

They should have what the district calls "smart objectives." They should be strategic, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-based.

Who reviews the plans?

First, principals review each other's plans. Then, the district's regional superintendents review them. The state reviews plans of schools that repeatedly have failed to make adequate yearly progress under federal guidelines.

Do parents get a say in these plans?

Yes. Each plan must be approved by the School Advisory Council. Whenever the school makes a change in the plan, school officials should present the changes to the SAC.

What happens if a school fails to create a school improvement plan?

The state would consider the school out of compliance and could withhold school improvement funds. District officials say it has never happened here.

What if a school fails to meet the goals outlined in the plan?

With the exception of schools under state scrutiny for repeatedly failing to make adequate yearly progress, there are no sanctions for not meeting a goal. But because the state is requiring all students to be on grade level by 2014, missing a target makes it that much harder to meet the next year's goal.

Q&A: school improvement plans 10/17/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 17, 2009 4:31am]
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