The Pinellas County School Board asked Superintendent Julie Janssen for a bold plan to raise achievement and opportunity for students. Amid some rough patches and glitches, she has delivered, and board members should embrace her vision on Tuesday when they take a final vote.
Broadly speaking, Janssen's framework adds proven programs across much more of the county while trying some new experiments that stand a good chance of success and shake up a too-often mediocre status quo.
Largo High School, for example, will start an International Baccalaureate program. More district openings will be created in back-to-basics programs by efforts such as reopening Kings Highway Elementary in Clearwater as a fundamental school. Janssen also would try new approaches by partnering with the University of Florida to run Melrose Elementary, an underperforming magnet school in the Midtown area of St. Petersburg, as a laboratory school. That would bring cutting-edge techniques, research, top talent and a new energy to a school that needs more attention.
Janssen's overall plan takes some chances, creates some new opportunities and adds some more options. There are many moving parts, and some may turn out to be more carefully calculated than they appear. For example, reopening the recently closed Kings Highway might seem financially questionable, except that more than half the students on fundamental school wait lists are not currently in public school. Bringing them into the system brings more tax dollars based on state per pupil formulas as well as adding more parents who will support public education at a time when that is sorely needed.
Getting to this point always requires compromise and revisions, and some of the messiness could have been avoided. To cite two examples, parents and students at Palm Harbor University High's IB program and at Lakeview Fundamental were incensed that Janssen planned to move their programs to other schools. Both plans were voted down. Too often, the parents and teachers felt that they had not been adequately heard. Had they been consulted at the beginning, better answers — such as the reasonable compromise to keep IB at Palm Harbor but reduce its size so more zoned students in its traditional program can attend the school — might have come quicker and with far less acrimony.
There is a solution. If the School Board wants the superintendent to act boldly, it must give her enough leeway to do so. Requiring her to present plans to them before she can brainstorm with people directly affected at a particular school or program, for example, means that the ideas can seem hastily thought through — and don't benefit from the insight of those actually in the classroom. The board need not cede its decisionmaking authority. But it's important to remember that the biggest, boldest plan still must take effect in individual classrooms, where students, parents and teachers deserve to be heard. From the top down, the board will have better options to consider if the superintendent is allowed to vet some of her ideas — and improve them — by talking about options with the people at the schools where she is proposing changes, from the bottom up.
Janssen's plan is a good step in trying to improve Pinellas County schools, and it undoubtedly will go through more fine-tuning as time goes on. But it's time for the School Board to embrace her broad approach and move forward.