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Schools snipping state's red tape

This fall, lawmakers made an offer to schools in six Florida school districts, including Pinellas and Citrus counties: Show us how freedom from state rules will help you improve, and we'll cut away the red tape.

In Pinellas, only Azalea Elementary School accepted the offer. It was one that principal Brenda Clark could not refuse.

"This is a win-win situation," Clark said. "You're out from under everything."

By becoming "deregulated," Clark hopes to capitalize on the gains her school has made since she took the helm in 1992. The fact that her ideas _ keeping Azalea students at Azalea for summer school, building teams of teachers to cater to students' individual needs _ don't sound particularly cutting-edge underscores why lawmakers saw the need to deregulate.

Most of the deregulated schools are still in the planning stage in Pinellas, Citrus, Palm Beach, Seminole, Leon and Walton counties. But educators such as Clark are busy determining what rules they can start bypassing as soon as this summer.

"Much of what people want relief from is common sense to be able to implement common sense," said Larry Hutcheson, a state education official who is coordinating the project.

State Sen. Donald Sullivan, R-Seminole, conceived the idea for deregulated schools during a Senate debate last spring over a charter school bill. Another legislator, arguing against the bill, earned cheers from teachers in the gallery by insisting that public schools could be just as successful as charters if they, too, were freed from state and local bureaucracy.

"I stood up and said we can do that, and we should do that," Sullivan said.

While the project's primary goal is to improve student achievement, Sullivan predicts it will also show that local school boards, not the state, are responsible for most of the red tape.

"If it only accomplishes the fact that it shines the light on the school districts to get rid of some of the rules and regulations, then it's been helpful," he said.

Clark's ideas for further boosting test scores at the newly deregulated Azalea are already proving Sullivan right. A lot of her ideas will require bypassing School Board rules, not state regulations. They call for allowing Clark _ not the district _ to decide how to use state money provided for her students.

For instance, Clark wants the flexibility to use her teachers more effectively. Instead of following the board's prescription for how to staff the fourth grade, for example, Clark wants to bring in part-time aides for some classes, lower some class sizes, and pair up other teachers in ways that will better serve the needs of Azalea students.

Other deregulated schools want the same flexibility, though it will require local school boards' approval, Hutcheson said. State officials will try to help individual schools get the okay, he said.

"Everything so far hasn't been a problem," Clark said, but she has not asked yet for the board to approve her staffing changes.

In Citrus, eight of the county's nine elementary schools, plus Citrus Springs and Crystal River middle schools, are using this year to plan how they will take advantage of deregulation, according to a state report. At Citrus Springs, for example, school officials are looking for relief from state and local paperwork requirements and for ways to use teachers who are not state-certified in the subjects they teach.

In Pinellas, Clark hopes deregulation will allow her to keep Azalea students who need summer school at Azalea with familiar teachers, instead of following the district practice of assigning students to summer programs near their homes. For underachieving students, she wants to extend the school day or year to offer extra help. She also wants to build a system to link students' families with social service agencies, easing their lives and boosting their children's chances for success at Azalea.

The freedom that is supposed to accompany deregulation "just kind of makes you think about everything differently," Clark said.

Sullivan said he wasn't surprised that only one Pinellas school accepted his challenge. Hutcheson said the autumn deadline was partly to blame, arriving too soon for some schools to apply.

"The reticence of the powers that be to do anything new and different has always been disheartening," Sullivan said.

But at Azalea, Clark has made a name for herself by doing just the opposite. Last month, she was one of 11 educators from around the country chosen by potential presidential candidate Bill Bradley to share her innovations at a national round table on academic excellence at the University of Maryland.

In the past few years, test scores at Azalea have been on the rise.

Located on 74th Street N near Tyrone Square Mall, Azalea has a student turnover rate of about 40 percent. About half the students receive free or reduced-price lunches, a measure of poverty.

Since 1995, current fifth-graders have seen their combined reading, language and math scores on standardized tests increase almost 20 percentile points. The number of black fifth-graders scoring in the lowest quartile on those tests has dropped from 63 percent in 1995 to 18 percent this year.

Clark has faced criticism, too. In her first year at Azalea, some parents and community members said she suspended too many black students. Clark explained that the suspension rate for all students skyrocketed that year and disagreed that black students were targeted unfairly.

"Our discipline rates went up for students who misbehave," Clark said simply, noting that her critics never visited the school to look behind the numbers.

Since then, suspensions at Azalea have decreased, to 51 last year, according to district figures. Among elementary schools, the average was 28.

As for Azalea's academic success, Clark attributes that to her staff's enthusiastic use of Malcolm Baldridge business management principles, which require each child to regard school as his or her job. The students keep "data folders" to track their progress. Each classroom is plastered with graphs and bar charts that compare individual and student performance.

But there is work to do _ 15 to 23 percent of Azalea students are still performing below grade level _ and Clark is blunt about the challenge.

"Public schools are not producing students that are equipped to perform and be successful in the 21st century," she wrote in the application to be deregulated. "For our staff to be successful, we must be able to work outside the current system."