1. The Education Gradebook

Pinellas teachers get schooled over summer break

ST. PETERSBURG — It was time to line up for lunch, a procedure Justin Black had perfected.

At his command, nine soon-to-be fourth-graders rose in unison and pushed in their chairs. They about-faced and lined up, single-file, in silence, eyes on their teacher.

Kali Davis, a training director for Springboard for Success, trained her eyes on the teacher, too. It was her job to coach Black through the intricacies of classroom management.

"That was very smooth," she whispered. She noticed that this time, Black specifically told his class to line up "heel to toe." That eliminated the chance that students might try to line up next to a buddy.

"It's common sense with a name, so people are conscious of it," Davis said. "You can't hold kids accountable if you don't have a clear set of instructions."

Black is 25, and though he's going into his third year teaching physical education at Melrose Elementary School in St. Petersburg, he wanted to fine-tune his skills. He signed up for Springboard, a four-week summer program for rookie teachers to hone their ability to manage students while getting real-time coaching. Teachers also attend small-group sessions on topics like institutional racism and restorative justice practices.

Their training ground was at Woodlawn Elementary, and in Clearwater at Sandy Lane Elementary, two schools hosting a free summer program for students.

"It's a nice safe space for them to get really good at practicing techniques," Davis said.

Springboard started four years ago under a different name (Fast Start) as a training program created to support exceptional-student education teachers and avoid high turnover.

Its mission is now geared toward training teachers with less than two years of experience, who work in schools with large populations of students from low-income families.

This year, the program expanded to two schools and tripled the number of teachers being trained to 38. Teachers taking part were also compensated for the first time.

Cassandra Murphy Atkins, an exceptional-student education staff developer with the district, was one of the first trainers in the program.

"The hope is that we keep expanding and keep providing these opportunities to really support early-career teachers," said Atkins, who coached teachers at both sites this summer. "And I think we all can agree that consistently great teachers in front of kids are what's best."

The Pinellas teacher training program is different from the SpringBoard math and English curriculum products used by the Hillsborough County School District. Those materials been subjected to much criticism by students, parents and teachers there.

A typical day at Springboard starts with a few hours in the classroom. Three coaches — a teacher at Woodlawn Elementary, a grants coordinator for the district's professional development department and Davis — schedule shifts to observe teachers in their classroom.

Coaches watch to see if teachers are "tracking" students, which means they're constantly scanning the room to make sure each student knows they're being watched.

They listen to hear if teachers are framing everything they say in a positive context instead of pointing out who is doing what wrong.

Some coaches walk over during the lesson to give tips and reminders, while others opt to film video of the lesson to watch it with the teacher later so they can critique the session together.

"Helping them helps the whole classroom," Davis said.

After the students are dismissed for the day, the teachers gather in a circle in the media center to discuss the day's highs and lows.

Courtney Baker, a 30-year-old English Language Arts teacher who is headed to Azalea Elementary in St. Petersburg in the fall, shared how she was conscious of her tone and the words she chose when speaking with students who weren't on task.

"This is the best of both worlds," she said. "You get to teach and you get to learn."

The training can be a huge help for those without a college degree in education, like Rachel Lachiusa, who has a background in sociology.

"The fact that I had kids to practice on with a coach is really cool," said Lachiusa, 23, who plans to teach kindergarten.

Amber Austin, 29, plans to return for her second year as a varying exceptionalities resource teacher at Fuguitt Elementary in Largo in the fall. She said the skills she learned can apply to ESE students and the general population.

"I'm definitely feeling more confident going in August," she said.

Contact Colleen Wright at or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.