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Tampa Bay districts make their mark at state education summit

ORLANDO — The agenda is a virtual playbook of plans for education change in Florida: tenure reform, collaboration with private industry, charter schools, virtual school.

And the Hillsborough and Pinellas school districts are helping to call the signals.

Both districts had starring roles in Tuesday's first education summit by the nonprofit Florida Sterling Council. The meeting was organized in partnership with the state Department of Education and the executive office of the governor.

Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia told the gathering that too much attention is being paid to teacher merit pay in all of the buzz surrounding her district's seven-year, $202 million partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Of equal importance, she said, is the attention going to leadership development. Principals will be held to tighter standards, with student test scores and employee evaluations being used to determine who's strong and who's not.

"For teachers, the climate at the school created by leadership is one of the key points in making them want to be successful," Elia said. "Without quality leadership, you just can't make it happen."

Pinellas superintendent Julie Janssen said her district's collaboration with local chief executives has led to a surprising conclusion: Businesses do a better job of handling conflict in the workplace.

"What we need most from our business partners is to learn how to deal with difficult employees," Janssen said.

Principals are good at handing out "warm fuzzies," she said, but aren't particularly adept at setting clear limits or performance goals for staffers who push back or drag their feet.

Over the past year, Pinellas has found a business partner for 80 percent of its schools, and has grappled with the question of how best to collaborate with the private sector, Janssen said.

Sometimes there's a culture clash, she said, describing their work on strategic planning as a nightmare.

"They kept wanting to see how schools could be run more efficiently, with money left over at the end," Janssen said. "For us, it's not about having money at the end, it's about getting a better student."

These days, Pinellas wants more than goods and services from its vendors. Companies that win bids are now being asked to provide mentors and tutors as a condition for signing a new contract with the district, said Valerie Brimm, director of strategic partnerships.

And some for-profit companies know a lot more about running schools than they're given credit for, said Billie Miller, a principal with Fort Lauderdale-based Charter Schools USA.

She said 82 percent of its 20 schools earned an A or a B last year under the state's accountability system, with none earning a D or an F. Every teacher and campus gets reviewed annually by a trained team to make sure they're following research-based practices, she said.

Some students do best with no classrooms at all, and districts save money in the process, said Pam Birtolo, chief learning officer for Florida Virtual School. She said online learning is poised for a big expansion.

"I really believe in my heart if we engage them, we're not going to need to remediate them later," Birtolo said.

But it was Hillsborough's reforms with the Gates Foundation that prompted the largest number of comments from the crowd. Superintendent Elia said her district hopes to pave the way for similar changes across Florida and the nation.

"We want to help others make this happen," she said.

Terry Holliday, commissioner of the Kentucky Education Department, said the district is "right on target" in matching its reforms to those under way at the national level.

But he said Hillsborough is taking a risk by trying to use value-added calculations to measure the contributions made by teachers in all subjects, something for which there is less solid research backing. "I think they're very wise to get three years of data before starting it," he said.

For Chris Colwell, deputy superintendent and chief academic officer for the Volusia County school district, those risks appear worth taking.

"It looks huge and daunting," he said, referring to Hillsborough's reforms. "And it looks exactly like the kinds of things we'd like to tackle."

Tom Marshall can be reached at or (813) 226-3400.

Tampa Bay districts make their mark at state education summit 06/01/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 9:52pm]
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