Reform efforts tie up Pinellas middle schools

A push to reform Pinellas middle schools has turned into a muddled dispute over scheduling that has educators bracing for a rocky start to the new year.

Teachers are considering a class-action grievance against the district for violating a contract provision stating they can't be required to teach more than five periods a day. A new schedule in place at most middle schools calls on them to teach six.

Administrators are hoping to avoid the grievance by engaging middle school teachers in frank discussions as they return this week in preparation for the start of classes next week.

The district will be asking teachers for their ideas on wriggling out of the mess. But as district and union officials discussed possible scenarios in interviews last week, a solution seemed elusive.

The options include:

• Prevailing on teachers to accept the extra period of work without extra pay.

• Paying teachers for the extra period of work.

• Or putting a new — and dramatically different — schedule in place at midyear after kids return from winter break.

The first was option was deemed unacceptable. Officials with the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association say the union would never agree to a violation of the contract, especially in a year when the district is offering no raises.

The second option is considered unaffordable. A conservative estimate puts the cost of paying teachers for the sixth period at more than $7-million.

The third option is unpalatable. "I really think that would be chaotic," interim superintendent Julie Janssen said of changing the schedule in January.

How did the situation get so mangled? The answer is complicated, but a budget crisis and bad timing loom large.

As School Board members struggled to deal with the state budget crisis this spring, they relied on a change in the middle school schedule to save $2.8-million. The change required middle schools to offer seven periods or "opportunities" instead of the previous six periods.

The measure was part of a long-discussed reform effort to better engage students in school, in part by giving them more chances to take electives. But it also saved money by requiring teachers to teach a larger percentage of the day.

Under the old schedule, they taught five of six periods, or 83 percent of the day. The new one requiring them to teach six of seven periods has them in front of students for 86 percent of the day, which allows the district to hire fewer teachers as it struggles to meet the expensive mandates of the class-size amendment.

The School Board approved the budget cuts on June 10 — five days after the 2007-08 school year ended and teachers went home for the summer. That meant principals were forced to hastily devise new schedules in June and July while struggling to get teacher input via e-mail.

According to district and union officials, the ideal solution would have been a "block" schedule that allows for 90-minute classes and organizes the week in a way that complies with the teachers' contract. To accommodate the longer classes, subjects would alternate days because not every class would fit into each day.

But block schedules are more complicated and they require different teaching methods.

For example, while a 50-minute class in a regular schedule might lend itself to a lecture and a brief activity, experts say a 90-minute class on the block schedule requires a teacher to change pace at least three times — perhaps from a class-opening activity, to a lecture that explains the concept of the day, then back to another activity that pulls it all together for students.

Another benefit of the block schedule: fewer "passing times" between classes, which cuts down on discipline problems.

With little time to plan and train teachers on a block schedule, and limited input from their staffs, most middle school principals dialed in a straight seven-period day.

On the plus side, the straight seven periods allows for more electives. But classes will go to about 48 minutes, down from over 50 minutes last year.

Also, the number of passing times will increase over last year, not to mention that the schedule offends the teachers' contract.

It wasn't supposed to happen this way.

For nearly three years, a task force of Pinellas teachers and administrators met to re­imagine how kids are taught in Pinellas County middle schools.

From the start of the accountability movement, the numbers pointed to a problem in ninth grade. Scores of students couldn't handle the work and were dropping out.

It was clear that middle schools weren't preparing some students for high school. Educators concluded that the current model threw 11- and 12-year-olds into a high-school-style environment too soon.

In addition to more electives, the task force called for:

• More individual attention.

• Block schedules that allowed teachers to be more creative.

• Teams of teachers who progress through the day based on what kids are learning, not when the bell rings.

"We wanted middle school to look like an extension of elementary and then a weaning to high school," said Janssen, who recently told principals that the district would listen to all sides as it tries to dig out of the problem.

Kim Black, president of the teachers union, noted that three years have passed since reform discussions began.

"A whole class has gone through middle school and we still aren't doing anything differently," she said. "I know this district is better than that."

Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at tobin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8923.

Reform efforts tie up Pinellas middle schools 08/11/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 17, 2008 7:59pm]

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