Pinellas County school superintendent Julie Janssen laid out some bold plans to expand the best public school programs, from the rigorous senior high International Baccalaureate to the popular back-to-basics fundamental schools. Responding to expected concerns from parents, she has massaged the proposals to serve more students without damaging the successful programs at their current schools. The public vetting of these changes has been healthy, and the conversation should continue as the School Board considers the superintendent's vision for the future.
Janssen first proposed moving the International Baccalaureate program from Palm Harbor University High to Countryside High. Many students who are zoned to attend Palm Harbor are frozen out because the school is over capacity, and the IB program has many students from outside the zone. After the predictable protests from Palm Harbor parents, Janssen now suggests maintaining a smaller IB program at Palm Harbor and still creating more seats for other students.
Even better, she proposes creating IB programs at both Countryside and Largo high schools, adding hundreds of new IB seats. She would consider allowing some students to sample IB by taking individual courses — the so-called certificate option — instead of jumping headlong into the full IB diploma program. She also is floating the idea of starting Cambridge Advanced International Certificate of Education (AICE) programs — somewhat similar to IB — at Dixie Hollins, Clearwater and Tarpon Springs high schools. This is all to the good. It shows the importance of public debate and how the back and forth often can produce pragmatic solutions with broader public support.
Janssen is also pondering the best way to expand the popular back-to-basics fundamental schools. In a district suffering from a yawning achievement gap between white and minority students, it is important that any expansion allow poor and African-American students a real-world chance at attending. Because many students from low-income families lack reliable transportation, that means placing the bulk of those fundamental openings within walking distance of where they live.
The fundamental programs require parental participation, which can keep some students out through no fault of their own. Janssen suggests looking at proxies or surrogate parents who would agree to check and sign the homework, for example, and to attend mandatory school meetings. This could be a relative or a friend who agrees to take on the supervisory role to satisfy the fundamental school requirements. It is an intriguing idea worth a fuller hearing, and it would further involve the community in improving public education.
Janssen will pitch her revisions at a School Board workshop next week, and the board members should also be engaged in the conversation. The details will continue to evolve, and the public should continue to participate in the discussion about how best to expand these programs to serve the needs of the more students.