Should Pinellas County have community schools, where education and social services are intertwined? Should it have a residency program for new teachers? How about lab schools tied to the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and St. Petersburg College? Those ideas and dozens of others were floated after superintendent Julie Janssen invited 330 people to two recent workshops at the Collaborative Labs at St. Petersburg College.
Her goal: to have a broad range of people offer their best ideas for where the district should go. And hopefully, begin getting buy-in for sweeping changes that are coming soon, whether the district wants them to or not.
"You can design something up here, and then we roll it out and say, 'Here it is,' " Janssen said. But "if you really want sustainable change, you have to build it from the bottom up."
The first workshop, held Feb. 4, included principals and district-level administrators. The second, held last Monday, included teachers, parents, assistant principals and members of community groups.
The participants were told to dream big, then come up with their best ideas for each of the four pillars central to the federal Race to the Top grant program:
• improving teacher quality;
• turning around struggling schools;
• beefing up standards and curriculum;
• building better student data systems.
By day's end, the ideas had been whittled down to the five or six best in each category.
If Florida's grant application is successful, Pinellas schools stand to receive between $20 million and $24 million over four years.
Even if Florida doesn't win, Pinellas will still have to make big changes — to things like performance pay and teacher evaluations — because new state laws demand it.
Many who attended the meetings said they appreciated the discussion.
"It was a great way of soliciting broad-based comments and perspectives," said St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Goliath Davis. "I think a lot came out of it in a positive way."
Many also appreciated the broad reach of the ideas.
"One item was providing additional resources for teachers to get advanced training in different areas," said Carolyn Chaney, a parent of a Bay Point Elementary student. "Another was to implement and phase in internships for recent college graduates before they go into classrooms and take over full time."
That's not to say there was agreement on everything.
Some participants, for example, pushed for performance pay for teachers, which many teachers don't like, especially if it is strongly linked to students' standardized test scores. "I think we ought to begin rewarding teachers who make the extra efforts," said Watson Haynes, who represented the group Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students.
But Kip Curtis, an Eckerd College professor whose children attend Lakewood Elementary, said he was "offended" that some politicians are implying that "educators are not doing their jobs."
Janssen said she hopes to have one more workshop to pick the ideas that are "the most doable." But she said the two groups came up with lists that were remarkably similar.
"It's amazing," she said. "We really all want the right things for our kids."