It is sweeping in its scope and provocative in its approach. Its focus is on improving student achievement rather than shuffling personnel and rerouting buses. There are details to flesh out and ideas certain to generate opposition. But Pinellas school superintendent Julie Janssen has created a bold vision for the future that is worthy of a serious public discussion.
Mandatory school uniforms for students in elementary and middle schools and the creation of another fundamental high school are sure to receive plenty of attention. The proposals should be thoroughly vetted, because there are passionate arguments on both sides of those issues. But beyond those headlines, Janssen offers even more intriguing proposals for changing the culture and focus of a once-proud school district that no longer ranks among the best largest districts in the state. Among them:
• Applying fundamental school concepts such as tougher discipline and stronger parental involvement to all elementary and middle schools. This approach could raise the bar for all students and schools. That's better than having the most dedicated students and involved families fleeing to fundamental schools and leaving everyone else in schools with discipline problems and low expectations.
• Extending the school day or the school year at schools where student test scores are lagging. Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg is moving in that direction as it copes with a failing state grade. Other schools should follow suit, and the teachers union should be a willing partner.
• Enhancing career and technical opportunities for students by creating more "centers for excellence'' programs. This recognizes opportunities for students to compete for well-paying, highly skilled jobs that do not require four-year college degrees.
• Expanding a program to prepare average students for college by improving their study skills so they can fare better in advanced placement courses. Shoving unprepared students into AP classes who cannot pass the AP tests is not the answer.
Over the years, the Pinellas school system rested on its good reputation. The achievement gap between black and white students widened, and standardized test scores dropped. Switching from court-ordered busing to school choice back to zoned schools sapped time, energy and money. The economic recession hit, and the focus was on what to cut instead of how to invest. Now Pinellas has to play catch up, and the school district and the community need to step up.
Since she became superintendent two years ago, Janssen has too often moved from crisis to crisis: a fatal school bus accident, student discipline problems, poorly communicated spending cuts, an increase in poor-performing high schools under tougher state oversight, a major reshuffling of principals. Too much time has been spent reacting to problems and too little on envisioning the future.
Now Janssen has shifted gears. Her proposals for reshaping public education in Pinellas are far-reaching and thoughtful. Some of them will be controversial, and not all of them will be embraced. But they should be fully explored, and they suggest Janssen has the vision and leadership skills that so many expected when she was hired.