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Two Pinellas educators among those taking on new teacher evaluation law

Brandt Robinson was an ''activist" long before he understood the meaning of the word.

As a boy, he and his brother watched their mother write letters to elected officials and the local newspaper supporting equality. As a teen, Robinson attended rallies supporting civil rights. And as a college student, he wrote to then Yitzhak Rabin about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Robinson still has the late Israeli prime minister's response.

Now the Dunedin High School teacher is at the forefront of another cause: challenging Senate Bill 736, the controversial new law that abolished tenure.

The Florida teacher's union filed a suit on behalf of Robinson, Carolyn Lofton, another Pinellas County teacher, and four other educators against the state in September.

Approved by Florida lawmakers during the last session and being adopted by districts this year, SB 736 redefines how public school teachers are paid, evaluated, hired and fired.

"If we make education more difficult by attacking teachers, my fear is there's a point you might not be able to come back from," Robinson said.

Lofton, a kindergarten teacher at Skycrest Elementary in Clearwater, said teachers feel shut out.

"I want to be held accountable for the work that I do," said Lofton, 58. "But who knows best? Give us a voice and we — the people who are in the classrooms where the rubber meets the road — can talk about that."

• • •

Before there was SB 736, there was Senate Bill 6.

Approved by lawmakers in 2010, SB 6 tied teacher pay to student performance and immediately sparked fierce protests. Teachers across the state donned black or stood on corners holding signs seeking public support.

Then-Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed the bill.

The scenario was repeated a year later: New bill. More protests. Different outcome: It was the first bill Gov. Rick Scott signed into law.

Lofton was one of those who traveled to Tallahassee urging several local lawmakers to vote against SB 736, but "it's like it was falling on deaf ears and we weren't being heard."

A 35-year teaching veteran, Lofton joined the Pinellas County Teachers Association while a first-year teacher at the urging of her sister, now a retired Pinellas educator.

Though wary at first, Lofton gradually spoke up more and increased her involvement when she saw others were hesitant to stand up.

Today, Lofton is on the PCTA's executive board and volunteers with at least a dozen education and community groups.

"I decided I'd rather be proactive than reactive," she said.

She noted that more than a month after the school year began, she "can't wrap my brain around" the complex formula school districts must now use to calculate teacher effectiveness.

Under SB 736, teacher pay and job security will be tied to student scores on standardized tests, like the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. But many teachers — including kindergarten teachers like Lofton — don't administer those tests.

So for those teachers, Pinellas County will substitute schoolwide reading scores. That means educators who don't teach FCAT subjects will be judged partly on the performance of students who aren't in their class.

"The way this bill is written, it's going to require more testing than what is now. That's less time to teach my children," Lofton said.

• • •

The lawsuit filed by the Florida Education Association in Leon County Circuit Court alleges the law violates the state Constitution by taking away teachers' right to collectively bargain on pay, working conditions and other issues that affect teachers and student achievement.

Teachers and school district leaders say they should have been given the chance to offer input on the new evaluations.

"The whole process has been backwards," Robinson said. "We've taken the most important agents — professional educators — out of the equation."

Robinson pointed to Hillsborough County, which crafted an evaluation system with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that could be used as a model.

• • •

Both Lofton and Robinson's past evaluations rate them as highly effective teachers who have "exceeded expectations" in most areas.

Lofton has been called a "model teacher" who possesses "excellent teaching skills" and a "warm, smiling personality." One principal remarked: "What a nice place for a child to learn!"

Robinson similarly has been described as an educator who is "respected by peers" and who "relates very well with the students." A May 2006 evaluation says Robinson, whose "passion for teaching is evident," provides a "risk-free safe learning environment."

Keyonna Summers can be reached at ksummers@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

Two Pinellas educators among those taking on new teacher evaluation law 10/09/11 [Last modified: Monday, October 10, 2011 1:16pm]

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