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Volunteers' vision designs schools

Several hundred Citrus County adults are building a new foundation for the county's public school system.

Like architects preparing a blueprint, these volunteer boards at the county's 17 public schools are gathering information about what their school needs before they begin filling in the specific details.

When they are done, they will have built schools that might run on alternative schedules, offer combined courses of study, provide new programs and new educational opportunities in and out of the classroom.

They may decide to drop some things the state requires and add others.

The process is officially called the state's Blueprint 2000. The buzzword is accountability.

Those involved are cautiously optimistic that the plans they form, which should be ready around March or April, will ensure that students are better prepared for higher education or life outside the classroom.

They're also glad to be involved in the decisionmaking process.

"I think it gives all of us an opportunity, and parents especially, to be on the ground floor of making our schools better," said Pat Lancaster, president of the Inverness Middle School team and the county council president of the PTA.

Executive Director of Education Service Bonnie Skrove, who has led the dis-trict's school improvement committee, said some people may have a hard time understanding accountability, which is more philosophical than concrete at this stage.

"It's often discomforting for people to go through change. They want to see what the outcome is going to be," she said.

"But there is not a preconceived outcome designated. It's going to be a vision that each one of those councils formulates. We're going to see 17 visions when those plans are completed."

Building the ideal school

The basic notion behind Blueprint 2000 is to place more control in local hands, of both the school board and each school's improvement team, known as School Advisory Councils.

The teams are made up of school administrators, teachers, non-instructional staff, students, parents and community members. Each team's job is to decide the needs of its school, relate those needs to seven goals established by the state, figure out how to meet those needs and how to be sure students are benefiting from the changes.

When the improvement plans are finished next spring, they will be submitted to the School Board for approval.

The teams can also request that state laws be waived in some cases to make changes in school programs. Those waivers will have to come to the School Board for approval.

The teacher's union, the Citrus County Education Association, has also sought to have some say about which waivers are approved.

Some fundamental school rules, such as the 24 credits high school students need to graduate and the courses they must take, cannot be waived. Other rules about such programs as pre-kindergarten, drop-out prevention, student transportation, school volunteers and instructional materials can be waived.

The process seems simple _ get everyone who has a stake in the education of the community's children together and let them decide how the education system should function. But there are a few potential pitfalls.

The big one is money. With fewer state dollars available, school districts have cut programs, increased class sizes and watched as teacher morale plummeted.

"It's hard to think of implementing the ideal school when you're just trying to hold your current position . . . we're barely treading water," said School Board member David Watson.

"If you give someone unlimited resources, you can do anything. But we have to live in the real world, and in the real world, there are limits on manpower and money," he said.

"Will we have to rob Peter to pay Paul?" asked Superintendent Carl Austin. "We can look to accountability and these grand outcomes, but where will this money come from?"

Chris Becker, president of the Citrus County Education Association, agreed. "Funding is a big issue because of the technology they want to bring into the system."

At Becker's school, Lecanto Primary, the school improvement team is considering, among other recommendations, setting up an alternative calendar. For more than a year, the school's administration, staff and parents have discussed the pros and cons of a year-round school with shorter, but more frequent, breaks in the school year.

That is one suggestion that could be accomplished with additional teachers or with other creative scheduling, school officials said.

Skrove said the challenge for the teams is to look at all options and realize that, "Funding is certainly an issue, but it's not a prohibitive issue.

"Some enhancements may not need new funding, but a rededication of funds, different use of personnel, more utilization of volunteers, more utilization of community resources."


other considerations

From the start, officials have wondered what accountability would do to a progressive district. "When you're one of the highest performing counties in the state, you want to be sure the effort is not going to pull you toward the middle," Austin said.

"How are they going to handle school districts that, according to their standards, don't measure up?" Watson asked. "The whole plan is so open. . . . It's kind of like being given a blank road map and asked to fill in the roads and then decide your route."

Watson said he is also concerned about how accountability will affect school principals, who in Citrus have long been allowed much autonomy.

"You're going to be holding a principal responsible for what happens when a committee makes the decision," Watson said. "It may be difficult. Some principals may have to change their management style."

But he said he expects that problem will lessen over time. "I think it's going to be dependent a lot on the make up of the committees and, as they work through their roles, they're going to get better at it," he said.

There have also been questions raised about the way that school improvement teams were selected. School Board policy dictates that peers nominate peers _ in other words, teachers would select the teachers on the team, students would select the students.

Union officials say they're not sure that's been done, and they're trying to get the policy written into their contract so they can enforce it.

Becker himself said he had to go to Florida Education Commissioner Betty Castor in order to get a spot on his school's team.

But Austin said he hasn't received a formal complaint that the School Board policy wasn't followed. And Watson said that small glitches were to be expected in the beginning of any new program as complex as accountability.

Florida's seven educational goals

Readiness to start school: Communities and schools collaborate to prepare children and families for children's success in school.

Graduation rate/readiness for post-secondary education and employment: Students graduate and are prepared to enter the work force and post-secondary education.

Student performance: Students successfully compete at the highest levels nationally and internationally and are prepared to make well-reasoned, thoughtful and healthy lifelong decisions.

Learning environment: School boards provide a learning environment conducive to teaching and learning that includes sequential instruction in math, science, reading, writing and the social sciences and appropriate educational materials, equipment and pupil-teacher ratio.

School safety and environment: Communities provide an environment that is drug-free and protects students' health, safety and civil rights.

Teachers and staff: The schools, district and state ensure professional teachers and staff.

Adult literacy: Adult Floridians are literate and have the knowledge and skills needed to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

Source: Florida Commission on Education Reform and Accountability