Familiar challenges for a new school year | Editorial

The quest to improve student performance and keep campuses safe never ends.
Students at Azalea Middle School hurry to catch the bus headed home after their first day of classes in Pinellas. JAY CONNER/STAFF
Students at Azalea Middle School hurry to catch the bus headed home after their first day of classes in Pinellas. JAY CONNER/STAFF
Published August 9

Students, teachers, parents and administrators face challenges old and new as another school year begins this week across Tampa Bay and Florida. While many school districts have strengthened campus security in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre, there is still work to be done. Hillsborough County, which spent the summer putting its new school maintenance tax to good use, must confront persistent issues with reading and search for a new superintendent. Pinellas County kicks off the year with some new school start times and hopes to build on improved student performances in some of its poorest neighborhoods.

School security continues to get most of the attention. Districts across Florida have hardened their campuses in the aftermath of the 2018 massacre at Douglas High in Parkland, adding armed security, installing new communications and hardening school buildings to create safer environments. Hillsborough and Pinellas wisely heeded the wishes of teachers and parents who don’t want to arm classroom teachers, leaving security to law enforcement and trained school guards. The Pasco County School Board also took the right course by adopting a new policy last week for limiting weapons only to those district employees specifically hired for security.

Still, there are cracks in the system. Last month, a statewide grand jury impaneled to investigate school safety found that “numerous” Florida school districts were not in compliance with the post-Parkland school security laws. The grand jury found “troubling” failures in carrying out the reforms and flatly dismissed the excuses state and local officials offered as “wholly unpersuasive.” While Tampa Bay’s school districts appear to be performing well, the grand jury needs to name those lagging districts for the sake of campus safety and political accountability.

One area of focus for every school district this fall: Behavioral threat assessment teams that state law requires to be in place in every school. The state recently issued new standard procedures for those teams to follow identifying and investigating potential student threats well before any violence occurs.

Ten Pinellas public schools also start the year with happy news that they rose by two state letter grades. Among the notable successes are St. Petersburg’s Campbell Park Elementary, which climbed from an F to a C, and five other schools that jumped from a C to an A. Hillsborough is addressing weak performance in reading by conducting an audit of literacy programs at all the district’s 235 schools. Nine elementary schools will use new curriculum under a pilot project aimed at raising third-grade reading scores.

Beyond academics, both counties are looking forward. In Pinellas, the first bells will ring five minutes later at all but four high schools — 7:25 a.m. It’s a slight improvement, but it’s a move in the right direction and an acknowledgement that high schoolers function better with a later start time, which ideally should move to 8:30 a.m. Hillsborough has received more than $40 million from a new sales tax for school improvements that county voters approved in November. The district has spent $18 million so far, with 21 air conditioning projects completed over the summer and 102 projects underway, including roofing, paving and painting. Cooler classrooms should provide better learning environments. Hillsborough is also hiring additional crossing guards as it expands the safety net around middle schools, the first program of its kind in the state.

A new school year marks a fresh start. But the collective efforts to better prepare students to compete and become engaged citizens in the 21st century — and to provide a secure environment for that preparation — never end.

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