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Some School Board members wonder if they can continue a program for 127 teachers.

Faced with a budget shortfall, some Pinellas County School Board members are questioning the value of a program that funds master's degrees for a small group of teachers.

In the past four years, the University of Florida's Lastinger Center and the district have provided scholarships to teachers from high-poverty schools to get their master's degrees in education. In return, the teachers continue teaching in those schools for five years after graduation.

However, with only 127 teachers from the district enrolled, and as district officials slash costs, board members question whether it is a prudent expenditure.

"How much money in the program is being used to pay for master's degrees?" asked Linda Lerner, School Board member. "I am not doubting value of the project. I think it is wonderful training. But we have to provide professional training for all teachers."

It costs $19,000 for each teacher to complete the 36-credit graduate program, and funding for that comes from multiple sources, said Lisa Grant, the district's professional development director.

The center provides about $2.6 million from various grants to support the partnership, while this past school year the district chipped in roughly $2.2 million drawn from federal funding for low-income schools. The money also goes toward training other teachers in using the key approach advocated by the center.

The program has come up several times in School Board workshops, including the one this past Tuesday as board members discussed potential budget cuts.

"Can we afford to do that for just a few teachers?" Lerner said. "I don't believe we can."

Lerner wants to know how much of the money goes toward the scholarships.

Board member Janet Clark noted Lerner has asked for that information before, but it has not been produced. Clark said she wanted to see that information, too.

Superintendent Julie Janssen, who supports the program, said she would send board members a cost breakdown. A representative from Lastinger also is scheduled to attend Tuesday's School Board meeting.

"We know the single most important factor in providing students with a quality education is a highly effective teacher," Janssen wrote in an e-mail. "As a district, we are aligning all of our teacher training and professional development, including the partnership with the Lastinger Center, to support classroom teachers."

The Lastinger approach

Tracy Staley wants to make sure her students understand how the light bulb on the circuit board lights up.

So, on top of a paper test, she asks her students to assemble a simple circuit board and explain to her how electricity works.

"Traditional paper and pencil tests are not the best means of assessing science," said the fifth-grade science teacher at Ponce de Leon Elementary in Largo. "Science is an interactive subject."

Like many teachers, the district's teacher of the year often wrestles with how well standardized exams, like the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, reflect what students know.

That is why she came up with another way of checking her students' progress, an idea she developed while enrolled in the Lastinger program.

"I think the program is giving us a lot of support as far as critical thinking skills and the interest in finding research-based solutions to problems," Staley said.

Program officials encourage science, technology, engineering and math teachers in high-poverty Pinellas schools to use the scientific method to solve everyday classroom problems.

Called the inquiry approach, this method allows teachers to identify, frame and think critically about their problems, and gather and analyze information, said Carol Thomas, Pinellas schools' regional superintendent.

"It simply supports and encourages teachers to wrestle with their dilemmas and think about what can they do differently," she said. "We're not going to tell you what to do, but help you find out what is working in other classrooms."

Teaching teachers to be better teachers

The inquiry approach has been around for decades but gained traction in recent years because of debates over teacher quality and accountability.

"Much of this focuses on the evaluation of teachers and the compensation of teachers. There is no equal focus on how to get teachers better," said Don Pemberton, director of the Lastinger Center.

The traditional ways of training teachers, by making them take extra classes, aren't working because there is no way to see whether teachers are implementing what they learned, he said.

The inquiry approach is "already oriented to the notion that most teachers will identify what it is they need to learn and work on to get better," said Sylvia Boynton, the UF professor who helps oversee the program in Pinellas schools.

Tara Fowler, a math teacher at Lakewood High in St. Petersburg and a student of the UF program, agrees.

Having taught secondary school math for 12 years, Fowler said the approach helped her improve how she gets her students to ask smarter questions about mathematical slopes.

"This helps them with problem-solving," she said. "I was doing it, but now I can put more oomph to it."

Teachers like Fowler will share their findings at a meeting on May 11 at Ruth Eckerd Hall. The event will feature 746 projects teachers have worked on.

But other Pinellas teachers and principals are already trying this approach voluntarily.

Bob Poth, principal of East Lake High, uses it to figure out how to raise reading scores among the school's struggling students. The school received a lowered letter grade because less than half of those students passed reading.

So he changed the hiring practice at the school, requiring newly hired teachers to get additional certificates to teach reading within a year, he said. The move raised the number of reading-endorsed teachers from three to 15.

Program proponents are quick to say that test scores will not start rising overnight.

"We're not making that kind of claim. This is a gradual redirection of the way teachers think about educational research," Boynton said. "You don't come out in the end saying I have the answer. ... No single solution is transferable to other places."

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Four years, 33 local grads

The Lastinger Center's master's degree program in education started in Pinellas County four years ago and now has 102 elementary school teachers and 25 secondary school teachers enrolled. So far, 33 teachers have graduated from the program. The teachers, mostly from high-poverty schools, receive a scholarship to attend the 2-1/2-year program while teaching full time. Other districts the Lastinger Center has partnerships with include Alachua, Collier, Duval and Miami-Dade.