Pasco school district proposes overhaul of offerings along US 19 corridor

Published Dec. 5, 2018

LAND O' LAKES — Assistant superintendent Vanessa Hilton asked Pasco County School Board members to write down two numbers: 7,454 and 362.

The former represented the number of students attending a dozen schools in a high-poverty, high-crime area along the U.S. 19 corridor of western Pasco County. The latter, the number of teachers and leaders working in those schools.

The school district promised in its vision statement to provide a world class education to all students, Hilton said during a Tuesday workshop presentation. Yet in that part of the county, the execution hasn't always matched the target.

"This is a hard promise to keep," Hilton said. "And we need to be much more intentional and thoughtful about how to assist the 362 teachers and leaders in making this happen every day for every student in every classroom."

That's why the administration is proposing a restructuring of those schools, in an initiative called Project RISE. It stands for Relevant Inspiring Supportive Experiences and calls for adding accelerated offerings, such as International Baccalaureate, into elementary through high school feeder patterns. It would create partnerships to provide other supports and services for children and families.

It also includes closing two aging elementary schools, Hudson and Mittye P. Locke, and converting Marlowe Elementary into a science, technology, engineering and math magnet school. The district would reassign children in those campuses to use district financial resources in a way the staff sees as more efficient.

The possible school closures drew a passionate crowd of teachers, parents and other supporters to Tuesday's board meeting, where the staff presented its ideas. The sentiment largely was against taking schools out of communities that need them.

"We chose our home not because of Hudson Elementary's school grade, but because of its potential," parent Amy Archer told the board, singing the praises of a school that views children as "scholars" rather than numbers. "Hudson Elementary is a unique, wonderful learning environment."

Locke school advisory committee chairwoman Amber Starkey said her school has many successes already, from strong academic performance to minimal disciplinary problems.

"The question we should be asking is: What can we do to keep this school open?" Starkey told the board.

Hilton asked the board to keep in mind that the initiative incorporates more than just closing campuses as part of its goal to meet that vision statement.

"We are talking to you about a project with many components that focuses on one thing, and that one thing is equity," she said.

Equity is not about one school, team or teacher, she continued. It's about a consistent, meaningful approach to achieve excellence for all — and that takes change.

"We know not all of our students are there yet," Hilton said, adding that the west side proposal is the beginning. New ideas for other regions could follow.

Board members said they support improved offerings for students. But they also had dozens of questions they want answered before they consider approving such a sweeping concept.

"My name has to be on this, and I have to be comfortable with it," chairwoman Alison Crumbley said.

Vice chairwoman Colleen Beaudoin shared that perspective, saying that details matter to the people who spend their days inside the schools.

"We weren't involved in the conversation to hear all the pros and cons," Beaudoin said, referring to the many staff meetings that took place to craft the proposal.

Their leeriness stemmed, in part, from the way the staff brought forward and then implemented plans to transform Ridgewood High into a technical high school earlier this year.

For instance, the district promised that students reassigned to Fivay and Gulf high schools would get "white glove" treatment. Yet entering the second quarter of the year, Fivay had several courses led by substitute teachers as it struggled to fill vacancies.

Before the transition, many teachers left Ridgewood, taking control of their own fates. If Hudson Elementary is told two years out it will close, board member Megan Harding said, the same could happen there.

So board members wanted to know how the district will handle teacher assignments. They asked pointed questions about student busing, knowing Krinn Technical lost about 100 students in its first days as parents found the hub-and-spoke transportation model inadequate.

They wanted to know how the district would balance enrollment among the schools, in light of criticism surrounding the recent redrawing of west-side high school zones that did little to achieve that goal.

And so the conversation went, reflecting the difficulties inherent in having a staff pull together a project without tying the board's hands. They also want to avoid upsetting the public with specifics that might never come to pass.

Superintendent Kurt Browning acknowledged that the district must iron out many details. He said he wanted the board's red or green light on the concepts before spending more time on the planning.

He didn't quite get that.

He did, however, get strong board support to keep on working on the plan. And the district set up an email account — — specifically to receive public input on the project.

"We may do a multitude of things with it," board member Allen Altman said, noting the idea was discussed for months before becoming public. "But it has been driven by what's best for families and children."

Board member Cynthia Armstrong, who was chairwoman until recently, also knew about the conversations. She suggested the board is in the "frustration stage," with many unanswered questions.

"We have an amazing staff to work out these details," Armstrong said. "I see this RISE program as being our vision to create a school system that is equitable, no matter where you live."

The board set another workshop on Project RISE for Feb. 5, following its regular business meeting.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at Follow @jeffsolochek.