Three more Pinellas high schools are headed for a high level of state oversight this fall because they're failing to make enough academic progress.
Boca Ciega, Dixie Hollins and Lakewood, all consistently D-rated high schools in south Pinellas, will join F-rated Gibbs High in being watchdogged by a Florida Department of Education team that scrutinizes everything from teaching methods to disciplinary practices.
"I'm not saying there's not a stigma to this, and (the schools) don't wish it were otherwise," said Gail Daves, the department's regional executive director of differentiated accountability. But the schools "have not achieved at the level that is sufficient."
The change means state and district officials will make joint decisions about who the principals will be at those schools, and which teachers should stay or go. It also opens the door for each of the schools to get $1.5 million in grant money over the next three years.
The action puts nearly a quarter of Pinellas' traditional high schools, and almost half of those in the southern part of the county, under tight scrutiny.
Local and state education officials have discussed the move for months. But three Pinellas board members contacted Friday — Mary Brown, Linda Lerner and chairwoman Janet Clark — said they did not know this was coming.
"This bothers me very much … I'm very much for local control," Clark said. But the state is "going to take over whatever they're going to take over."
The response from the state: "This seems like a communication issue in Pinellas," said Nikolai Vitti, the Department of Education's deputy chancellor of school improvement.
Pinellas superintendent Julie Janssen said it was her understanding that the coming oversight of the three high schools was not going to be as far-reaching as it is at Gibbs. She said the district will craft its own plans for those schools, tied to the grant money, that the state will monitor. That's different than Gibbs, where the state led and directed, she said.
"I don't resent the state oversight," she said. "We're doing it together."
The three Pinellas schools join 67 others statewide on a list of the state's most struggling schools, which the Department of Education put together in December as part of its application for a federal Race to the Top grant. The list also includes Franklin Middle and Middleton High in Hillsborough County, Ridgewood High in Pasco County and Hernando High and Central High in Hernando County.
The state's accountability system requires that schools get escalating levels of scrutiny and support depending on how much they're struggling. Earlier this year, for example, state officials said Middleton has made progress toward avoiding a state takeover this spring.
"I welcome them," Boca Ciega principal Paula Nelson said. "If there are things we can still improve upon, and I'm sure there are, we want to do it."
But Nelson said there is anxiety about what's ahead. "Teachers are fearful. They're afraid of having to reinterview for their jobs," she said. "I can feel their pain. I'm in the same boat."
Associate superintendent Barbara Thornton said the district is recommending that Nelson and Dixie Hollins principal Mike Bohnet keep their jobs. Lakewood principal Dennis Duda is retiring.
But Daves said whether the principals stay will depend on evidence of progress.
Gibbs principal Kevin Gordon said the other Pinellas schools can expect intense, thorough help, including professional development for teachers. Last fall, a state team began its effort at Gibbs poring over data and visiting core classes. For months, its members showed up every week. They offered tips on delivering lessons and better planning.
Early on, four teachers were transferred.
"They're not holding your hand saying, 'You better do it,' '' Gordon said of the state team. But "you can't not do it. They're going to report whether or not you're doing it."
The oversight "makes you better,'' he added.
Pinellas board members, though, had mixed reactions.
"In these budget times, we need to take all the money we can get," Lerner said. "At least this might be a funded mandate."
But Clark said it's not clear yet whether state oversight is helping Gibbs. This year's FCAT results aren't out yet, and school grades won't be issued until late fall. "I haven't seen any proof that the state has done anything to improve anything," she said.
Clark also questioned how the state can decide now, before results are out, that the three high schools haven't made gains.
Vitti, with the Department of Education, said if schools on the list improve, they'll get less state support, while schools that slip or stagnate will get more.
One parent hopes that more state support will help.
Wendy Pohlmann, whose daughters Hannah and Julia attend Lakewood, applauds the staff, but thinks discipline is a problem.
"I don't know if the state needs to step in, but somebody needs to step in," she said.
Times staff writers Stephanie Hayes and Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8873.