A brief article in the St. Petersburg Times on Oct. 29 discussed complaints raised by teachers regarding the change at Pinellas middle schools to a six-of-seven period instructional day for students. Here is some background regarding how we got to this point.
The move to a seven-period day began long before schools opened this August. Three years ago, a committee convened to examine the middle school reform movement and found that many middle school students drop out of school because their normal day consists of core academic subjects (English, math, science, etc.) in which they are struggling, or intensive remedial classes designed to help them be more successful in those same core classes. Over time, students feel the pressure of not being successful and drop out.
In addition, the state has begun to impose more courses (reading, physical education, math remediation, career education, etc.) that will enter the middle school curriculum over the next several years, adding to the frustration of our middle school students.
The district called together a committee of educators to review a "6-12 Redesign" process that would better articulate the secondary curriculum and attempt to add time for students to take classes that might better engage them and keep them in school longer. The committee addressed issues such as graduation rates, the impact of declining enrollment, potential loss of elective class offerings, the state class-size reduction amendment and the loss of state and local funding for public schools. By expanding the instructional day to seven periods and asking teachers to teach six periods instead of the traditional five, the district could expand the class offerings for students while reducing the need for additional teachers by approximately $2.2-million for 2008-09. In the wake of substantial state budget reductions, this seemed like a viable alternative.
The move to a six-of-seven period day at the secondary level was an attempt to bring parity to the amount of instructional time provided by secondary teachers when compared to elementary teachers. It is necessary to expand the amount of instructional time at the middle and high school levels in order to maximize the potential money received for each student under the state's funding formula. For example, elementary teachers routinely have taught 300 minutes of the 450 minutes they are employed each day, which provides maximum funding. Secondary teachers have only been required to teach on average 229 to 270 minutes. The new schedule will allow the district to generate more state funding and protect or expand elective courses available to students.
It is important to understand that the Pinellas School Board had to reduce spending for this school year by $26.8-million. This followed a reduction in 2006-07 of $17-million in planned spending and a loss of $15.3-million in revenue in 2007-08. The budget cuts required for this school year led to the elimination of more than 500 positions and a freezing of employee salaries for 2008-09.
Now school systems throughout Florida are awaiting final word from the state regarding a second budget reduction that could cost Pinellas schools an additional $14-million to $20-million. Over the past three years, the Pinellas School Board has cut $48.3-million in planned spending and reduced district reserves by $10.8-million, for a total of $59.1-million. Public school systems are not immune or "held harmless" to the downturn in the state and national economy and must find ways to absorb cuts of this magnitude by changing our staffing or the delivery of programs to students.
Teachers have stated that requiring them to teach a six-of-seven period day violates the collective bargaining agreement. The district has acknowledged that issue but is renegotiating a successor agreement to the contract that expired June 30.
We hope we can work cooperatively with our employees, our parents and the community to find solutions that will enable us to continue to provide effective educational opportunities for our students.
Julie Janssen is superintendent of Pinellas County schools.