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School reform plans are ready

Customized plans to improve Florida's schools are about ready to go, but the state is still deciding how to hold schools accountable for their efforts.

The plans call for greater use of computers in the classroom, classes that incorporate several subjects at one time and combining primary grades, said Pat O'Connell, top legislative aide to Education Commissioner Betty Castor.

Two years ago, state lawmakers passed a law that returned more power to the schools. Many state laws and regulations governing school operations were suspended under the accountability reform and schools were directed to produce improvement plans ready to be put into effect this fall.

There is a tremendous range in the scope of the plans, Castor said Monday when she met with Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay to review the reforms.

"There are some plans that are just surprisingly good," she said. "Some of them are going to need some help; they're going to have to go back to the drawing board."

As the schools have worked on their individual plans, the state has struggled with how to hold schools accountable.

Castor and MacKay met to review the status of a proposed rule that will define what kinds of data schools will be required to report.

The rule has been hammered out by the Accountability Commission after several public hearings. A final vote by the panel is set for next month.

"Trying to get consensus" on the many parts of the plans is not easy, Castor said. "So we've had lots of discussion."

But she expressed some optimism.

"I think we're in pretty good shape," she said.

The rule, which is scheduled to go before Gov. Lawton Chiles and the Cabinet for approval next month, will be broadly worded so that every proposed change in the future won't require action by the governor and Cabinet, according to Michael Biance, director of the Accountability Commission.

To fulfill its role, the Accountability Commission also is working with the Office of the State Auditor General, Castor said.

The proposal calls for checking schools to make sure they get input from the community. The state will check a couple of large districts, a couple of mid-sized districts and a small district.

"It's a little check on the involvement," she said, adding that some people have complained some districts haven't done much to include minorities on the school advisory commissions that wrote the improvement plans.

"We've had a number of meetings with minority representatives _ church leaders, some of our black principals," Castor said. "We've really reached out to get their reaction on this."

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