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School chief's merger plan angers parents

Everybody knows about the big flareups over superintendent Julie Janssen's student achievement plan. The battle over the International Baccalaureate program at Palm Harbor University High. The ruckus over the proposed merger of Gulfport and Lakeview Fundamental elementary schools.

But behind the scenes, another fire was threatening to rage when it was quietly snuffed out last month. Parents and teachers at Southern Oak Elementary in Largo began mobilizing in late October when they realized Janssen's plan to reconfigure the school along with neighboring Walsingham Elementary was on the fast track.

Janssen announced at the Oct. 28 workshop that a decision and further discussion would be postponed until next year, but the process has left parents and teachers frustrated.

"The very, very irritating thing about it is we don't know how they came up with this idea," said April Powers, a Southern Oak parent and member of that school's advisory council. "Has it been tried someplace and done great things? Is it going to save money?"

Right or wrong, the criticisms aired in this case echo the same complaints raised over some of the other parts of Janssen's plan. Poor communication with stakeholders. Little attempt to get input. Little research to back the need for change.

The initial plan, unveiled in September, mentioned Southern Oak and Walsingham under a proposal to create a couple of paired schools that would house Grades PK-2 and Grades 3-5 near each other. Southern Oak and Walsingham sit literally next to each other at Starkey and Walsingham roads in Largo.

Southern Oak has been A-rated the past five years. Walsingham earned a B last year and an A the year before. Both schools had nearly the same rate of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch last year (68 and 67 percent, respectively). But the percentage reading at grade level or above was significantly higher at Southern Oak (79 percent) than Walsingham (65 percent).

Powers said Southern Oak principal Randall Rozelle mentioned the proposal to advisory council members in October. But parents and teachers didn't realize it was serious until School Board member Linda Lerner met with teachers from both schools later that month.

"They thought it was just being brainstormed," Lerner said. "The attention went to the higher-profile issues. It was buried. Maybe it was in a power point on the (district website), but you know, teachers weren't directly told, 'This is on the plan next year, for your schools.' "

After meeting with Lerner, teachers and parents at Southern Oak quickly rallied. Sixty-five staffers and nearly 120 parents signed petitions. They sent them to School Board members right after the Oct. 28 workshop.

Some Walsingham parents also raised concerns with the district, but neither they nor the school advisory council chief responded to e-mails from the St. Petersburg Times. Principal Alicia Urbano did not respond to an e-mail sent Wednesday.

Lerner said the brakes were put on because of logistics. Both schools share the same access road, and there are pickup issues even with different school times. "Within two minutes (of meeting with the teachers), I knew why, logistically, this had to be put on hold," Lerner said.

The district says it will study those issues next year.

At the Oct. 28 workshop, Janssen offered some explanation to board members as to why the proposal was floated.

"The idea behind this was, this is really one campus. In fact, the two schools side by side are closer together than Madeira Beach Elementary and Madeira Beach Middle," she said, referring to schools that were merged and converted into a fundamental school last year. The Madeira Beach schools "are thriving in that model."

Janssen also said the district had "lots of research" that showed the benefits of changing Southern Oak and Walsingham.

"I think you'll see the research will support what we're trying to do and we'll get that to you," she told the board.

The day of the meeting, Southern Oak kindergarten teacher Tasha Johnson began pressing Janssen and School Board members for details about the research. On Nov. 12, a district official e-mailed her links to a handful of studies and reports, and listed some keywords used to find them.

Few of them offered details about grade clusters in elementary schools. One, to a short academic paper, said the research on grade configurations is limited and "should be treated with considerable caution."

Johnson said she was shocked. She kept pressing the district until she received a response from Janssen on Nov. 14 that said "no other research was done at this time" because the issue was postponed.

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

School chief's merger plan angers parents 11/25/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 25, 2010 11:13pm]
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