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Jeffrey S. Solochek, Times Staff Writer

Jeffrey S. Solochek

Jeffrey S. Solochek writes about schools and education for the Tampa Bay Times. Solochek has covered the school districts in Hernando, Hillsborough and Pasco counties since joining the Times in 2000. He also oversees The Gradebook education blog.

Phone: (813) 909-4614

Email: jsolochek@tampabay.com

Blog: The Gradebook

Twitter: @JeffSolochek

  1. Pasco School Board moves forward with new attendance zones, despite complaints


    LAND O'LAKES — Despite an outcry from some affected communities, the Pasco School Board gave initial approval Tuesday to new attendance zones for several elementary schools in the Wesley Chapel-Lutz area.

    The district is opening a new school in the area next fall to help ease crowding, particularly at Seven Oaks Elementary.

    To rebalance student counts in that growing part of the county, while some of the children would go to the new school, some would move to under-capacity Denham Oaks Elementary, west of Interstate 75....

  2. Pinellas violated class size rules, state investigation finds


    State investigators have determined that the Pinellas County school district knowingly violated Florida's class size rules in 2013-14 to make it look like schools had smaller classes than they actually did.

    In a report completed last week and made public Tuesday, the Department of Education Office of Inspector General found that the district hired substitute teachers to temporarily improve student-teacher ratios and meet the amendment requirements. ...

  3. How much did 'schools of choice' option affect Florida's class size compliance?


    The effects of Florida's 'schools of choice' class size option was dramatic, education commissioner Pam Stewart wrote in a recent letter to the Senate Education Committee.

    Before appeals, Florida schools of choice were out of compliance by just 84 students statewide in 2014, Stewart wrote. If those same schools had been held to classroom counts, as the 2002 amendment mandates, they would have missed by 31,257 students....

  4. Pasco moves to cut ties with troubled alternative school, but offers a second chance


    Citing concerns over student safety, the Pasco County School Board on Tuesday moved to cut its ties with AMI Kids, a privately run alternative school that enrolls up to 120 at-risk students.

    "The kids weren't being served," said board member Alison Crumbley.

    District staff reported that AMI Kids staff did not appropriately handle suicide and threat assessments. The district stated that the school also had "ongoing barriers" to the enrollment of some special-needs students, among other academic concerns, and also failed to pay its monthly rent and utilities....

  5. Florida's controversial teacher bonus based on SAT scores returns


    Perhaps it is fitting that in the same week that school districts must tell the Department of Education how many teachers qualified for the state's very controversial Best and Brightest bonus, the Florida House Education Committee will consider legislation to make the one-time measure permanent....

  6. Stagnant reading performance by Florida students prompts talk of new approaches


    For nearly two decades, Florida's public education system has heavily emphasized the role of reading — especially students' need to read for comprehension by the end of third grade.

    Now, state leaders are conceding that the intense focus has not yielded the results they wanted. Third-graders' gains have stagnated in recent years, with more than 40 percent consistently below grade-level achievement....

    Teacher Antonio Smith, left, reads the book "Miss Nelson Is Back," by Harry Allard, to a group of students set to attend third grade in the fall of 2013. For years, third-grade reading ability has been a pivotal indicator in Florida's education system. But stagnant reading scores in recent years are prompting legislators to craft new approaches.
  7. Parents, students state preferences for choice options in survey


    If superintendent Kurt Browning wanted clear direction for the Pasco County School District's next round of choice options, he got it from parents and students responding to a recent survey.

    STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and performing arts themes emerged as top areas of interest for elementary, middle and high schools.

    According to the district's survey results, 22.4 percent of elementary parents and students supported added STEM magnets in the coming years, more than any other subject. The district recently opened a STEAM magnet (that's STEM plus arts) with a lengthy waiting list....

  8. Florida's school class size limits reviewed


    A 2013 state law aimed at giving Florida public schools flexibility similar to that of charter schools has fast become a way for districts to avoid the most expensive provisions of the 2002 class-size reduction amendment.

    The rule let campuses deemed "schools of choice" calculate their class size as a school average, rather than as strict classroom counts.

    Since it was passed, 61 percent of the state's 3,041 district-run schools have gained the vaguely defined label....

    Senate Education Committee chairman John Legg contended many schools that received the "schoolf of choice'' designation offered nothing new and weren't truly open to choice. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
  9. Paris attacks add edge of reality to security checks at local venues

    Public Safety


    Following Friday's bloody terrorist attacks in Paris, fans at Saturday's Tampa Bay Lightning home game against the Florida Panthers went through more security than usual, the team said.

    The Lightning game was just one of several crowd-drawing events this weekend in the Tampa Bay area. Authorities said they were monitoring events in Paris, but in many cases any changes in security would be transparent or no different....

    Amalie Arena security employee Raymond Batchelor searches Lee Knopf of Melbourne before Saturday’s Lightning game. With USF, the Buccaneers and the Lightning all playing this weekend, security was emphasized by local authorities.
  10. STEM labs at Cypress and Moon Lake elementary schools challenge students with hands-on experiments



    Shaina Foreman and Mikey Hammond pieced together a lever from Legos, then set about figuring out whether it would help move a heavy load better than if they used an incline plane.

    The Cypress Elementary School fourth-graders studied simple machines, a building block for engineering, as part of a bigger lesson on force and motion. And they loved it.

    "If you just read it in a book, I'd probably fall asleep," said Mikey, 9. "Doing it as an activity, you actually learn it."...

    Cypress Elementary fourth-graders Totianna Diehl, left, and Alydia Hart use a diagram on an iPad during an experiment.
  11. Proposal aims to alter Florida school districts


    Florida's school districts would face fundamental changes in the way they operate under a newly filed bill by a Pinellas County lawmaker.

    Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has joined Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Fort Myers, to propose a constitutional amendment ending the requirement that all counties have independent school districts.

    If approved, the measure would result in:

    • Multiple school districts within a single county, including charter school systems run by municipalities....

  12. New magnets out, but existing programs to expand in Pasco schools


    Plans for new magnet schools to open next fall are quickly fading for Pasco County parents and students.

    Instead, the School District is looking to transform some existing offerings, such as AVID college preparatory programs, into magnets for 2016-17. Already open to choice, these programs primarily serve students within their own zones.

    The change would include more active advertising of the offerings throughout the district and school bus transportation to the schools for accepted students....

  13. Parents cite mall traffic as a problem in Pasco school rezoning plan


    WESLEY CHAPEL — A school rezoning plan would push some families into the heart of heavy outlet mall traffic every morning and afternoon, a group of parents told the Pasco County School Board Tuesday.

    Residents of the Arbor Woods subdivision, just 2 miles east of the newly opened Tampa Premium Outlets, have sent their children east to Seven Oaks Elementary School since the neighborhood debuted about two years ago....

    Cars line up on Mystic Oak Boulevard an hour before school gets out at Seven Oaks Elementary in Pasco County. Seven Oaks is so crowded that the school district is building a new elementary school to serve the growing area. The school rezoning plan would push some families into the heart of heavy outlet mall traffic every morning and afternoon. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times] 
  14. Students work out the bugs of new hunger project


    LAND O'LAKES — Biology teacher Kathryn Bylsma and senior Alex Lee had the same thought as Sunlake High resumed classes in August: The school needed a garden.

    Bylsma's issue was academic. Too many kids don't know how plants grow, she said.

    Lee's interest was civic. Teens could help feed the hungry, he explained, while also raising awareness of the environment.

    As they began the joint classroom-Key Club project, they discovered another shared concern: red millipedes. Everywhere....

    Senior Kyle Gumina digs up a plot of grass for the school’s garden Oct. 21. “We just expected to dig a hole and put a flower in it. Then, we realized we had no idea how to garden,” he said.
  15. Amid new test results, a call in Florida to 'be honest' about student performance


    The senior member of Florida's State Board of Education called for more honesty in test score reporting Wednesday, just hours after the release of new nationwide data showing student performance had slipped in key areas.

    Fourth- and eighth-grade scores in the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress slid in Florida, after years of steady improvement. Yet the state Department of Education declared "Florida students shine" in its media release, pointing to subsets of positive data that obscured the overall picture....