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Proposed Florida law would steer federal money away from poor students, districts say

Hudson Elementary School guidance counselor Catalina Fernandez helps set goals for the week with students Enrique Pomare, 9, left, Stuart Huggins, 10, middle, and Printzton Garcia, 8.
Hudson Elementary School guidance counselor Catalina Fernandez helps set goals for the week with students Enrique Pomare, 9, left, Stuart Huggins, 10, middle, and Printzton Garcia, 8.
Published May 14, 2017

Catalina Fernandez sat in her tiny, light-blue office with three young boys who needed a little extra help focusing on their goals for the week.

The work, she said, is critical to the success of Pasco County's Hudson Elementary School, where 85 percent of the students are considered low-income and 40 percent require extra academic help.

To keep track, the school's two guidance counselors post a weekly calendar of meetings like this one.

"But in a school like ours, with the challenges we face every day, many times we are being called away," the counselor said. "We try to maintain a schedule. But that is very difficult."

It's about to become more so.

With just 30 lines of text in a 278-page education bill, Florida lawmakers moved last week to significantly alter how schools and districts receive and use federal Title I funds, which provide extra educational resources to poor children.

If signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, the measure would spread the money to more schools, including charters, for the first time, and reduce the amount available for district-level initiatives such as summer school.

It further would cap the percentage schools may use for parent involvement programs at a level lower than what many schools currently spend.

The proposals are unprecedented in Florida, and unwelcome to school district leaders.

Proponents might like the idea of having the federal money "follow the students" into schools, said Hillsborough County superintendent Jeff Eakins, who oversaw federal programs in his district before taking the top job.

But "this language is going to hurt the students that need (added support) the most," he said. "This just really ties our hands."

As an example, he mentioned DeSoto Elementary School, a southeast Tampa school with just a couple hundred mostly minority students and a 95 percent poverty rate.

On its own, the school could not generate enough Title I funds to pay teachers the higher salaries they now get to work there. The district covers that cost with an amount that's set aside, and wouldn't likely exist under the newly proposed setup.

Other items on the chopping block would include added teacher training, student psychological and social work services, and curriculum experts that the schools are loathe to lose. One possibility, Eakins said, is to raid the already strapped general budget to cover the costs, and reduce programs elsewhere.

The issues are much the same throughout the region and state.

"A number of our community members and parents are aware of the services we provide in our 63 Title I schools," said Felita Grant, Title I director for Pinellas County schools. "It would be a shock to them, if this bill goes through, the number of services we would have to cut back on."

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The rules would cause Pinellas to spread its Title I funds across an additional 16 schools, Grant said, which could translate into less money for those with the highest concentrations of poverty.

Pinellas also could lose initiatives such as language arts and math coaches in its neediest schools, financial incentives to keep teachers at 15 low-income schools, and the district's Summer Bridge program, which enrolled more than 17,000 students last year.

Federal funding consultant Cheryl Sattler, who advises several Florida school districts, used a children's literature reference to describe the new provision, calling it the "horrible, terrible, very bad House Title I language."

"If you give a school $50 a kid, nobody is going to say hallelujah," Sattler said. "It just doesn't add up to very much."

But by taking the amount away from districts, and limiting their flexibility, she said, lawmakers could hurt the very students they profess to want to help. Plus, Sattler said, schools and districts are already well into planning for next year, based on current rules — not newly written ones that haven't yet become law.

"This will take a lot of scrambling," she said, expecting the bill to be the focus of attention at a conference of federal program operators next week in Orlando. "This is not going to be a happy summer."

The heat is on at Hudson Elementary.

Even before the Legislature's proposed fund shift, the Pasco County school faced a Title I decrease of $70,000, because of already shrinking revenue.

That means losing two teachers who helped keep kindergarten and first grade class sizes closer to 15 children, allowing classes to focus on needed basics.

It also means the elimination of that second counselor.

The legislative move would add to that by cutting the school's summer program, as well as teacher training, added classroom materials, and extra instructional coaches — all paid for by district-level Title I money.

And this is at a time when Hudson is striving to overcome years of underachievement. It hired 26 new teachers and an entirely new administration this year, and implemented a state-approved turnaround plan.

Parents and community members got more involved, and the school is making strides. Principal Dawn Scilex worries that folks in Tallahassee don't understand what Hudson is up against.

"We have homeless kids, daddies that are kicked out, kids that didn't have dinner, fourth- and fifth-graders who are responsible for their younger siblings," she said. "We do have to provide for all of that before we can teach them the standards."

With the current level of funding, the school has created an improved environment for learning, she said.

"The repercussions of losing Title I funds here are enormous," said reading coach Erin Senior, whose job is threatened by the changes. "We need more than just the little bit of support that many schools have."

Cutting money means cutting the "constant" that helps kids succeed, suggested second-grade teacher Rachel Sojka, who said she grew up in a Title I school.

Sojka had a message for the governor, who could veto the bill, as many educators have requested.

"Help us," she said. "Help us. That's it. Because the work will continue."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or jsolochek@tampabay.com. Follow @jeffsolochek.