Parents question proposal to move Palm Harbor University IB program to Countryside High

Palm Harbor University High School International Baccalaureate students Morgan Clare, from left, Parker Neu and Phillip Rozanski, all juniors, study an online newspaper article during a group lesson in Doreen Chonko’s Theory of Knowledge class. Pinellas County schools superintendent Julie Janssen is proposing moving the IB program to Countryside High.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Palm Harbor University High School International Baccalaureate students Morgan Clare, from left, Parker Neu and Phillip Rozanski, all juniors, study an online newspaper article during a group lesson in Doreen Chonko’s Theory of Knowledge class. Pinellas County schools superintendent Julie Janssen is proposing moving the IB program to Countryside High.

PALM HARBOR — Superintendent Julie Janssen's recent pitch to transfer the International Baccalaureate program from Palm Harbor University High to Countryside High has created a flurry of confusion among parents and educators.

The idea was just one of numerous proposals Janssen presented last week to balance the offerings within the district and give more students better access to magnet, gifted and fundamental programs.

But since the workshop on Tuesday, a number of parents whose children are in the IB program have questioned the practicality of moving the successful program.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it," said J.D. Cattel, co-chair of Palm Harbor's school advisory council, whose daughter is in the rigorous college preparatory program.

The coordinator of Palm Harbor's IB program, Mary Beth Corace, said she's fielded more than 40 calls and e-mails from parents of IB students.

Many feel the same as Cattel. Most want to know how moving the program will affect them. They also want to know why the district is talking about moving the program in the first place, a process that could begin as soon as next school year.

But Pinellas County school officials say they need to do something about overcrowding at Palm Harbor, which has two magnet programs, more than 2,450 students and 39 portables.

They're also trying to cut the extra cost of the portables and make sure there's enough room at the school for students who are zoned to go there, deputy superintendent Jim Madden said.

But Palm Harbor IB teacher Doreen Chonko fears the choice may impact education.

"If it's not broken, why mess with a good thing?" Chonko said. "To what extent does the school board wish to dismantle a very successful high school?"

Instead, she suggests replicating the school's success.

Actually, officials are considering starting an IB program in mid Pinellas, likely in the Largo area. But Madden said doing so could take even longer because they'd be starting from scratch.

Bill Feininger, another member of the school advisory council, has mixed feelings.

It could be beneficial because he doesn't like how the current setup takes spots away from students who live nearby, he said.

But he's worried that removing the program could leave a void. He thinks the collaborative atmosphere between educators in different programs elevates the quality of education throughout the school.

"To me, the biggest issue with taking that program out is what it does to the faculty and staff," Feininger said.

Parent Lynn Locascio, on the other hand, is all for moving the IB program.

She thinks students like her children would get more attention. Her son and three stepchildren have attended Palm Harbor University High. None were in the magnet programs.

The current proposal is to move the IB program to Countryside over four years, beginning with ninth-graders, and to phase out the program at Palm Harbor grade by grade.

While Catell questions the proposal, he understands the desire to ease crowding at the school.

But if the school district decides to move the program, he thinks it makes more sense to do it all at once rather than in a "piecemeal" fashion.

Palm Harbor's magnet programs, the IB and the medical magnet, each have about 570 students.

The school was built for about 1,600 students and the school has had a crowding problem since shortly after it opened in 1996. There had been plans since early on to build an addition to the school, but they never came to fruition because other projects took priority, Madden said.

St. Petersburg High School has offered the IB program since 1984. In the mid 1990s, the School Board decided to create one pre-IB class at Countryside for north county students, and those students moved to Palm Harbor after it opened.

The district is still exploring how moving the IB program now might work.

Janssen has tried to reach IB organization officials but hasn't spoken with them yet, Madden said.

"We haven't confirmed what the process is," Madden said. "We'd have to adapt our plans based on the information we get from them."

The timeline could be delayed by the logistics of offering the program at a new school.

The IB program can't simply be transferred from one school to another, said Sandra Coyle, IB organization spokeswoman for the Americas region. The new school would have to go through the authorization process, which requires two applications and takes two to two-and-a-half years.

But the authorization process wouldn't keep the district from offering pre-IB classes to ninth-and 10th-graders at Countryside while the district seeks authorization for the IB diploma program there.

That's because the actual IB diploma program doesn't start until the 11th grade, and it's the diploma program itself that must be authorized by the international organization.

If the district applies for Countryside, it will likely get authorized.

"Most schools do," Coyle said.

But there's no guarantee how long that might take and the process isn't free.

IB schools pay $10,000 annual fees, even during the application process, Coyle said. They also pay $9,500 fees for each application.

If district officials decide to move the program from Palm Harbor, they need to think things through, said Feininger, the school advisory council member.

"They would have to come up with not only a transition plan, but also a contingency plan," he said. "There's a lot of great reasons to keep things there."

Times Staff Writer Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report.

Q&A | Jim Madden, deputy superintendent

What would transferring the IB program mean for Palm Harbor and Countryside students and educators?

If the plan is implemented, will it affect any of the IB students already at Palm Harbor? No, deputy superintendent Jim Madden said. But once the transition begins, siblings on the IB track could be going to different schools.

Could moving the program to Countryside result in crowding there instead?

No, Madden said, because Countryside, unlike Palm Harbor, can accommodate its current population of almost 2,300. And the school district will eventually adjust attendance zones, which will further ensure that doesn't happen.

Would teachers be transferred from Palm Harbor to Countryside?

It's not that simple. And the process for filling positions has not been formulated yet, Madden said. But if the program is transferred, Palm Harbor IB teachers are likely candidates because they have the qualifications, he said.

Fast facts

Learn more

Deputy superintendent Jim Madden answers some questions about the move. Page 4

Weigh in

You can comment on the IB move and other student assignment proposals at two community forums to be held between Oct. 6 and Oct. 29. The School Board is set to vote Dec. 7.

Parents question proposal to move Palm Harbor University IB program to Countryside High 09/25/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 25, 2010 4:00pm]

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