Sunday, January 21, 2018
Education

Wary of competition, Pinellas school system offers new programs and considers opening more

Richard Litzenberger has a nickname for those few days in January when parents vie for open seats in Pinellas County's most coveted public schools. He calls it "open season."

The big game, in his mind, is a fundamental school.

Litzenberger hasn't succeeded in past years in getting his son, now a sixth-grader, into a fundamental. But that won't stop him from trying again when the district starts accepting applications from Jan. 8-17 to its special programs. He doesn't see another choice.

"Why is it that there are so few of these schools that are so good?" he asked.

That perception, true or not, has dogged Pinellas County Schools. For many parents, the top choice is a fundamental or one of a few coveted magnet schools. If they don't get a seat, they'll take their business to private or charter schools — hitting the school district's bottom line.

Superintendent Mike Grego, in a little more than a year at the helm, has pushed aggressively to expand educational opportunities, in part to woo back parents who have left the school system. Enrollment has been declining in Pinellas for more than a decade, while charter schools have grown.

"I believe as a public school system we ought to compete," Grego said.

For the 2014-15 school year, the district has introduced four new middle school programs, and the School Board so far has been supportive of a proposal to reopen two closed schools as technology magnets. One of those schools, Gulf Beaches Elementary, is on the barrier islands, where parents and public officials recently spoke in favor of a proposed Montessori charter school.

District officials also are looking at introducing or expanding programs that have been popular nationwide, such as the pre-Cambridge program for middle schools and the International Baccalaureate program for elementary and middle grades. Both are considered rigorous academic models with a global flavor.

The IB program already has been successful at Sanderlin K-8 in St. Petersburg, while the pre-Cambridge program is being introduced next year at Pinellas Park and Tarpon Springs middle schools.

"We're looking at a lot of things. Nothing's off the table," Grego said.

To locate new programs, Grego said his staff has been studying the number and location of charter and private schools as well as which areas of the school district have the longest waiting lists for special programs. The district also has been reviewing magnet programs that aren't doing the job of attracting students from outside the neighborhood. Parent surveys also are in the works, he said.

"It will tell us about where we are," he said.

The introduction of new programs — and the possibility of two new schools — could shake up the district's lottery system. It's notoriously difficult to get into the county's most popular schools, particularly fundamentals, which give students priority admission in the later grades if they had a seat in the lower grades.

For instance, more than 1,100 students applied last year to Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle, but only 226 were offered a spot. At Perkins Elementary, which has an arts theme, more than 1,300 students applied and 111 were invited to enroll.

The four new middle school programs will open seats at all three grade levels, potentially drawing students away from the more popular selections.

"These programs are going to have a significant number of seats," said Bill Lawrence, the district's director of student demographics, assignment and school capacity. "These are going to be good second choices or first choices."

If the School Board gives the official go-ahead to open the two new elementary technology magnets, that application period will occur later in the year, giving parents a rare second opportunity to pick something other than their neighborhood school.

The question remains, though, whether the new offerings will draw families. It often takes a few years for a new program to gain traction, and it can be a tough sell at a school with a less-than-stellar reputation.

Litzenberger enrolled his son at a charter school last year after failing to get a spot in a fundamental. He said he wouldn't consider the new engineering program at Azalea Middle because of concerns about behavior problems. The school had one of the highest rates for out-of-school suspensions in the district last year.

School officials have tried to address those issues. Azalea Middle introduced a new behavior plan this year and a recent state report said 80 percent of students were meeting or exceeding behavior expectations. But reputations don't change overnight.

"Now if you told me Thurgood Marshall (had seats available), I would be over there in five minutes," Litzenberger said.

Despite clamoring from parents, Grego said he doesn't have immediate plans to open new fundamental schools. He said he would prefer to expand other educational offerings, particularly in areas where the district needs more open seats.

"Without vacant seats, you don't really have choice," he said.

Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at [email protected] or (727) 893-8846. Follow @Fitz_ly on Twitter.

Comments
USF leaders move to calm fears over consolidation plan

USF leaders move to calm fears over consolidation plan

ST. PETERSBURG — Holding a piece of computer paper and a microphone, the leader of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg began a Friday afternoon forum by repeating the USF administration’s new mantra.He reassured the crowd before him that t...
Published: 01/19/18

Crews Lake thespians overcome the odds

SPRING HILL — It’s 8:30 a.m. — "homeroom" period in school speak — when kids in the Crews Lake Middle School drama club file into an empty chorus room to begin rehearsing under the direction of language arts teacher Kristen Sykora. There’s only 25 m...
Published: 01/19/18
Cuts hit top school leaders as Hillsborough sheds three six-figure salaries

Cuts hit top school leaders as Hillsborough sheds three six-figure salaries

TAMPA — Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins on Friday announced the first in a series of belt-tightening moves that include the elimination of three six-figure positions.Jobs now held by Wynne Tye and Larry Sykes will no longer exis...
Published: 01/19/18
Tampa Bay schools warn parents about flu activity, dangers

Tampa Bay schools warn parents about flu activity, dangers

The Florida Department of Health has reported a sharp increase in flu activity in the last several weeks, prompting area schools to send out letters warning parents about the virus. At least two districts, however, say that flu activity in their scho...
Published: 01/19/18

More than 400 apply to Pasco technical high school

School choice for 2018-19 is in full swing, and district officials said they’ve been pleased with the interest they’ve seen so far.The window for applying to the district’s magnet schools closed Jan. 12, except for applications for the new Wendell Kr...
Published: 01/18/18
Read the report on the fatal FSU frat party: ‘The most intoxicated’ they had ever been

Read the report on the fatal FSU frat party: ‘The most intoxicated’ they had ever been

"On Nov. 3, 2017, the Tallahassee Police Department responded to 1012 Buena Vista Drive … in reference to a death investigation."So begins a charging document in the case of Andrew Coffey, the 20-year-old Florida State University student who was foun...
Published: 01/18/18
In St. Petersburg, skeptics sneer at plan to concentrate USF power in Tampa

In St. Petersburg, skeptics sneer at plan to concentrate USF power in Tampa

In the state capitol on Wednesday, lawmakers breezed through the bullet points of a higher education bill. They skimmed past a hot-button proposal to consolidate the University of South Florida System into a single university without a peep of pushba...
Published: 01/18/18
Lithia Springs Elementary gets kids up with standing desks

Lithia Springs Elementary gets kids up with standing desks

VALRICO — Fifth-grade math teacher Melissa Forsythe walked around her Lithia Springs Elementary School classroom on Tuesday with zeal.She stopped at each station and listened with a big smile on her face as her students told stories about their new s...
Updated: 5 hours ago
Five things to know about teacher pay negotiations in Hillsborough

Five things to know about teacher pay negotiations in Hillsborough

TAMPA — They were hoping to receive between $15 million and $17 million in scheduled pay raises. But the Hillsborough County school district says it can’t afford to give its teachers anywhere near that much, while the teachers say they deserve nothin...
Published: 01/17/18
Updated: 01/18/18
Young Pasco teacher faces cancer with support of students

Young Pasco teacher faces cancer with support of students

NEW PORT RICHEY — At age 28, things were really shaping up for Joel Santos-Gonzalez. Fulfilling his lifelong dream of becoming a teacher, he had just completed his third year at Gulf Middle School."I always liked to talk to people on an intellectual ...
Published: 01/17/18
Updated: 01/18/18