A major disagreement over the future of teacher training in Tampa Bay played out in dueling public statements issued late Tuesday by the University of South Florida and the Pinellas County school district.
In an op-ed submitted to the Tampa Bay Times, university officials stood by their decision, announced last week, to phase out undergraduate programs in the College of Education. They said it was part of a “strategic realignment” driven in large part by a steep drop in the college’s enrollment over the last decade. Graduate programs, they said, would continue and be improved.
A short time later, the Pinellas County School Board approved a resolution criticizing USF’s decision and urging the university to reconsider. The resolution said Pinellas schools rely heavily on USF’s undergraduate program as it hires 600 to 800 new teachers each year. About a quarter of them come from USF.
Eileen Long, the board’s vice chairwoman and a USF alumna, called the university’s decision “heartbreaking.”
She spoke of current students she knows who have been told to look for other schools to complete their degrees.
“We need teachers," Long said after reading the resolution aloud. “Teachers are the foundation of everything.” The leaders at USF, she said, "need to think twice.”
The Pasco County School Board is scheduled to consider adopting a similar resolution when it meets Nov. 3.
The two communications followed an op-ed submitted to the Times last week by Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego and his peers in Hillsborough, Pasco, Polk, Manatee and Sarasota counties. The six school district leaders called USF’s decision a “terrible mistake” and “short sighted.” They criticized the revolving door of leadership in the College of Education over the last decade, and listed recommendations.
“It’s time to reimagine a more robust endeavor aligned with our state’s and community’s needs — most notably a real and significant teacher shortage,” the superintendents said. “Our region desperately needs a public College of Education to step forward with a baccalaureate pathway that is forward-thinking, accessible and a national model responsive to the educational and employment needs of the Tampa Bay area."
Tuesday’s op-ed from USF was authored by university president Steve Currall, provost USF Ralph Wilcox and Judith Ponticell, interim dean of the College of Education.
The three leaders cited a national trend in decreased demand for four-year undergraduate degrees in education, including a 63 percent dip in undergraduate enrollment over the last 10 years at USF.
Students, they said, are seeking less costly options through the state college system and other certification programs.
“Rather than duplicate other credentialing programs that are funded by taxpayer dollars, we believe USF’s talented faculty and staff can best meet the needs of our communities through a fresh focus on world-class graduate education and research,” the USF trio said.
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They said their plan was still in the early phases and that the university would be working with faculty, staff and community stakeholders in the K-12 system to hash out details. They said they were exploring admitting undergraduates into a five-year degree program — similar to what the University of Florida offers — that would culminate with a graduate degree and certification in education.
“As we continue our planning for USF’s strategic realignment, we must not lose sight of meeting the needs of our communities while also advancing USF’s aspirations,” the op-ed said.
At the Pinellas School Board meeting Tuesday evening, Grego named several other top universities that he said are “extremely capable” of providing robust undergraduate education programs without sacrificing research programs.
“We believe it doesn’t have to be an either or,” he said, arguing that a re-imagination of the USF program is more important than deleting it.
He said the district, along with others in the region, plans to open an hour-long conversation with the university on Friday to discuss possible other actions.
School Board chairwoman Carol Cook, another USF alumna, said she hoped that meeting would be the beginning of a longer discussion about reversing course. “It’s extremely important that we maintain this,” she said.