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6 things to watch as Tampa Bay schools reopen on Thursday

Short on staff and mired in culture wars, Florida schools are in the headlines. But the learning goes on.
 
Lydia Torres participates in a play about the Founding Fathers during the Children's Board Family Resource Center's Back to School fair on July 22 in Temple Terrace. The production, organized by Wanda Torres, right, was part of a reading tutoring program with Faith Action Ministry Alliance.
Lydia Torres participates in a play about the Founding Fathers during the Children's Board Family Resource Center's Back to School fair on July 22 in Temple Terrace. The production, organized by Wanda Torres, right, was part of a reading tutoring program with Faith Action Ministry Alliance. [ CHLOE TROFATTER | Times ]
Published Aug. 4, 2023|Updated Aug. 4, 2023

Doors will open Thursday morning in hundreds of schools in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties.

From crying kindergartners to high school seniors on the glide path to college, it will be a day of time-honored rituals and social media moments.

There will be spotty bus service as drivers, staff and students get used to safety routines.

And while principals aim for calm in the classroom, public schools will once again become a political battlefield as Democrats and Republicans gear up for the 2024 election.

Florida is arguably the hottest of hot spots, as Gov. Ron DeSantis tries to unseat Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination. From LGBTQ+ rights and book bans to a teaching standard that suggests slaves benefited from their forced servitude, laws and policies surrounding Florida education have made for fiery debate and anxiety in the teaching ranks.

As always, funding will be a pressing issue. Competition between traditional public schools and choice offerings such as charter and state-assisted private schools will fuel anxiety in the public sector. And labor shortages, which are assumed to be related in part to the political vitriol, will jeopardize the ability of children to receive proper instruction.

Here are some issues families and school officials will face before and after the opening bell.

Will I have a teacher?

In early July, the human resources website for the Hillsborough County School District showed more than 1,000 instructional vacancies, with dozens in three elementary schools in the Ruskin area.

After a flurry of hiring, the district reduced the number of classroom teacher openings to 455. It’s not as bad as 2022, they said. And, in 150 classrooms, they will employ college-educated Kelly Staffing substitutes who are working on their credentials to become district teachers.

Shortages exist in Pasco and Pinellas counties as well, as rising rents and other living costs make it difficult for educators to support families on starting salaries of about $50,000.

Pinellas school officials reported that they whittled their teacher job openings over the summer. By late July, the district had posted 195 vacancies for teachers, counselors and other related positions.

It appears to be a manageable number, in line with past years. Still, “195 is a lot if it’s your student sitting in a room without a teacher,” Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Lee Bryant said. And union leaders believe the true number is higher.

Pasco County reported having about 200 teaching vacancies at the end of July. “Generally we’re in a better position this year than we were at this point last year,” assistant superintendent Kevin Shibley said. A year ago, the number was closer to 350.

Shibley said the district’s ability to increase pay using a combination of state and local resources has helped attract applicants. He added that the district feels comfortable in its ability to get substitutes if needed, as its outside staffing firm has shown success.

In Hillsborough, the only area district without a dedicated property tax to supplement teacher pay, union leaders hope to hold onto teachers by convincing the district to grant concessions such as greater school choice for teachers’ children.

Tiana Leal makes arts and crafts during the Children's Board Family Resource Center's Back to School fair on July 22 in Temple Terrace.
Tiana Leal makes arts and crafts during the Children's Board Family Resource Center's Back to School fair on July 22 in Temple Terrace. [ CHLOE TROFATTER | Times ]

The culture wars are here

Speaking at a Tampa Christian school in May, DeSantis declared that “we’re not doing the pronoun Olympics in Florida schools.”

As he prepared to sign five pieces of legislation, including an expansion of the 2022 Parental Rights Act, DeSantis decried the practice of asking young children to choose pronouns for school communication. He suggested that such conversations were required of teachers, something that school officials said was not true.

Gov. Ron DeSantis smiles after he signs bills into law that make up what he calls his “Let Kids Be Kids” package during a news conference at Cambridge Christian School on May 17 in Tampa. Educators are still trying to adapt to the legislation as the 2023-24 school year approaches.
Gov. Ron DeSantis smiles after he signs bills into law that make up what he calls his “Let Kids Be Kids” package during a news conference at Cambridge Christian School on May 17 in Tampa. Educators are still trying to adapt to the legislation as the 2023-24 school year approaches. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Nevertheless, pronoun use was written into the 2023 law.

After much discussion, lawmakers settled on a system that does not prevent a student from choosing their pronouns.

But teachers are not allowed to ask, unprompted, about a student’s choice of pronouns. School employees are not allowed to identify themselves with pronouns that do not conform to their gender at birth. And, despite what a student might want, teachers cannot be compelled to use chosen pronouns that conflict with the child’s gender at birth.

Hillsborough school board members have been taking questions from teachers and parents, and there is general confusion on the issue. Board member Karen Perez said some charter school parents have told her they’ve received word that students can no longer choose their pronouns. Member Jessica Vaughn said teachers are wondering what will happen if they are caught going against the new law. Could they be prosecuted criminally? Will the state go after their teaching certificate?

Perez said she is worried that “students are going to feel like, when they come back to school, they can’t even use the name that they used last year,” she said.

The new laws were explained to principals during a week of training in June, said Van Ayres, Hillsborough’s interim superintendent. Now it falls to the principals to make sure their employees are up to speed.

Pasco County is taking a conservative approach. The district is asking parents for written permission if they will allow their children to be called anything other than what’s on official records, student services director Melissa Musselwhite said.

That’s even for seemingly simple adjustments like Bobby for Robert, she said, noting the district must implement the rule uniformly.

“It’s really tricky,” she said. “The expectation overall … is that they’ll use the name that’s showing up on the attendance.”

Regarding pronouns, Musselwhite said her team is poring over the latest statutes, rules and guidance to see what’s allowed.

Hopes for better busing

A big question facing area school districts remains whether they can get children to school on time — something that proved a challenge this past year, largely because of driver shortages.

Pinellas County has had the best luck in recruiting drivers after increasing its base pay to about $20 per hour. Chief operations officer Clint Herbic said the raise helped draw enough applicants that the district might have all its routes covered for the first day of classes.

It’s still looking for relief drivers to fill in for absences.

Hillsborough and Pasco have had less success finding drivers, even after boosting pay and holding multiple job fairs. Betsy Kuhn, Pasco’s assistant superintendent, said her district is relying on bus route efficiencies to keep up.

Pasco had more than 400 routes two years ago, and now it’s below 270.

Hillsborough reported having more than 200 driver openings with three weeks left before classes resume. The district has begun cautioning parents that buses could run an hour or more late for some time.

Deputy superintendent Stephanie Woodford steps off a school bus during a meeting of the Pinellas County school district's transportation department on July 19 at the Walter Pownall Service Center in Largo.
Deputy superintendent Stephanie Woodford steps off a school bus during a meeting of the Pinellas County school district's transportation department on July 19 at the Walter Pownall Service Center in Largo. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Battle of the books

Teachers also face the tricky task of determining which books they can provide.

The Legislature and State Board of Education set several rules governing what content is permissible, both for class lessons and for libraries, with particular attention paid to “sexual conduct.” At the same time, they made it easier for parents and district residents to challenge materials, opening the door to state-level appeals if the local decisions don’t satisfy the objectors.

The changes have left school district officials in a quandary over how to keep kids interested in reading while also meeting the state mandates.

In Hillsborough, the school board has been divided on whether to discuss their policies on book selection. Conservative members have long been calling for a workshop while board chairperson Nadia Combs continues to resist, saying she wants to see more clarity from the state. The long-awaited workshop was planned for Aug. 15.

District leaders stopped short this spring of ordering an examination of more than 100 books flagged by Citizens Defending Freedom, a group similar in ideology to Moms For Liberty, whose members strongly support DeSantis’ education agenda.

The Pinellas board, by contrast, has held workshops this year aimed at getting in sync with the laws. Board members most recently decided that they won’t make final decisions on book challenges, instead leaving the outcome to an ad hoc committee assembled by the superintendent.

At the same time, they made clear that the superintendent and staff have the authority to remove books that violate state content laws, regardless of whether a challenge has been filed.

Pasco officials have taken the most hands-off stance, officially taking up books only after someone objects. The district has two media specialists who review collections for outdated and underused books, as well as those that might not meet state requirements.

The school board planned to take up policy revisions for book challenges on July 25 but postponed the discussion until the state provides more clarity. “We will follow the statute even if the policy has not been updated,” Shibley said.

Paying for private school

Use of tax-funded subsidies to pay for alternatives to traditional public school could increase dramatically this year, after the passage in March of House Bill 1. The measure eliminates financial eligibility restrictions and the enrollment cap for the state’s Family Empowerment Scholarship Educational Options. The law also increases what the state can spend annually on another subsidy program, the Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities.

It’s not yet known how many families will make use of these programs, which provide stipends for families who want to home-school their children. Even before the law’s passage there was clear growth in program use, with the number of recipients in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties growing 50% in the last school year.

While Republican leaders celebrate creating options for children, the Florida Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization, has said it will cost the state’s public school systems a combined $4 billion a year. Hillsborough School Board member Lynn Gray has asked for monthly reports to track the loss of funding not just to private and home-school vouchers, but also to charter schools, which are a growing sector in Hillsborough.

Early projections from Hillsborough’s charter schools, which are privately managed but funded by the state, show those schools will enroll 40,000 students in the coming school year. If that statistic were to hold, it would amount to a loss of more than $300 million to serve those students.

It’s not all political

Stock clerk Alex Poinnsette works among shelves full of cafeteria supplies on July 19 at Pinellas County Schools’ Walter Pownall Service Center in Largo.
Stock clerk Alex Poinnsette works among shelves full of cafeteria supplies on July 19 at Pinellas County Schools’ Walter Pownall Service Center in Largo. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Despite the concerns about buses, books, pronouns and private school vouchers, learning will take place.

Though some of the content has proven contentious, Florida has expanded its expectations for African American history, civics, social media literacy and reading and math comprehension.

The Pasco district, which is opening a prekindergarten center, placed increased focus on early literacy in all its elementary schools, assistant superintendent Tom Barker said. “We’re definitely looking for phonics routines in the primary grades,” he said.

Lawmakers this year called on schools to use phonics as the main tool for teaching children to read.

Pasco also is adopting a math curriculum that’s more closely aligned to the state standards. Its elementary and middle schools are incorporating strategies focusing on student engagement and creating a positive classroom culture, chief academic officer Vanessa Hilton said.

Pinellas County schools have similar priorities. The district is adding sites that offer prekindergarten programs, and placing emphasis on competitive academic activities, perhaps hosting a spelling bee for the first time in years, chief academic officer Dan Evans said.

“We believe anything that is high interest and high engaging brings kids to schools,” Evans told the school board.

The district is growing its effort to improve middle schools, he added, by providing more enrichment courses, changing class schedules and having teachers work in teams, among other approaches.

Ayres, the Hillsborough superintendent, said his top priority is literacy. Fifty percent of all Florida students do not get passing scores on English language arts, and that number is 2 points higher in Hillsborough.

With a greater emphasis on phonics, Ayres said he hopes to strengthen instruction in grades K-2 and help students feel more confident in their reading skills.

“There’s going to be lots of noise, but we’ve just got to get back to the basics,” he said, acknowledging the many hot-button issues surrounding education.

“When our kids show up on the first day it’s about educating them, keeping the noise out of our schools. Keep it quiet, keep it calm, put our teachers in a place where they can do what they need to do every day.”

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