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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

New education dean at USFSP has deep roots in St. Petersburg

Allyson Watson

Colton Vines/Pete Henshaw, Northeastern State University

Allyson Watson

A new dean of the College of Education will join the University of South Florida St. Petersburg this summer, settling in a city her granduncle helped integrate decades ago.

Allyson Leggett Watson was appointed this week by Regional Chancellor Sophia Wisniewska to lead the college’s faculty. She comes to USFSP from Northeastern State University in Oklahoma, with a diverse student body of more than 9,000 on three campuses.

There, she serves as assistant dean for the College of Education, where she also teaches educational foundations and leadership. She holds an endowed chair for urban education, outreach and research, and is the founder and director for TURN, the Teaching and Urban Reform Network.

“She was a star faculty member, just outstanding,” said Martin Tadlock, USFSP’s regional vice chancellor of academic affairs, who previously worked as NSU provost. “Everybody knew Allyson. She was just raved about by the students.”

Watson’s family has deep roots in St. Petersburg. Her granduncle Gilbert Henry Leggett, a dentist, was a civic leader as St. Petersburg integrated. …

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Bill to limit job guarantees for annual contract teachers advances in Florida House

Times file photo (2012)

Since Florida lawmakers eliminated annual contracts for public school teachers, a majority of the state's school districts including Pinellas have guaranteed yearly renewals to those educators who earned an "effective" or "highly effective" evaluation rating.

The Florida House Education Committee on Thursday moved to end that authority. On a split vote, the committee favored a bill (HB 373) prohibiting school boards from awarding any contractual terms beyond what's provided in law.

Committee chairman Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, said the measure simply solidified the Legislature's intent from 2011, when it ended professional services contracts. Hats off to the unions that were able to negotiate tenure back into the contracts of about 95 percent of their teachers, Bileca said, but that was not the goal.

Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, agreed that the bill clarified existing statute, saying the bill "just makes sense."

Not every member took that stance. …

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Florida education news: Rezoning, teacher unions, grad rates and more

REZONING: The fate of the Pasco County school district's newly approved attendance boundaries sits in the hands of a state special hearing officer.

LABOR NEWS: The Florida House advances "union busting" legislation that has little chance of becoming law. • The fight over who will lead the Palm Beach Classroom Teachers Association continues, with one candidate claiming the union is trying to tie him to Donald Trump, the Palm Beach Post reports.

GRAD RATES: The Florida Department of Education launches an investigation into whether school districts are manipulating their numbers, the Associated Press reports. More from the Orlando Sentinel.

HISTORIC: The tiny, struggling Jefferson County school district becomes Florida's first district to have only charter schools, the Tallahassee Democrat reports. More from WFSU.

LIFE LESSONS: Some northeast Florida teachers learn how to teach personal finance to students, the Florida Times-Union reports.

NEXT STEPS: The Duval County School Board holds a special workshop to discuss what to do if superintendent Nikolai Vitti leaves, Florida Politics reports. Vitti recommends possible replacements should he depart, the Florida Times-Union reports. …

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Charter school operators criticize Florida's new capital outlay funding rule

Mark Gotz of the Florida Association of Independent Public Schools questions the rationale behind proposed charter school rules before the State Board of Education on Wednesday.

The Florida Channel

Mark Gotz of the Florida Association of Independent Public Schools questions the rationale behind proposed charter school rules before the State Board of Education on Wednesday.

Florida charter school operators took issue Wednesday with proposed rules governing their access to state capital outlay funding, a subject of heavy debate almost annually in Tallahassee.

They pointed specifically to a section that would prohibit charter schools from receiving the money if they had earned one F or two consecutive state grades lower than a C.

"Charter schools are public schools and need to be treated equally and equitably," Mark Gotz, an executive board member of the Florida Association of Independent Public Schools, told the Florida Board of Education during discussion on the proposal. "Our public schools that are going to be less than C's aren't going to lose their capital funding, are they? I wouldn't think so."

Gotz suggested the rule would make it impossible for charter schools in low-income neighborhoods where academic success comes less easily to get and maintain funding for their buildings. He and another speaker urged the board to deny or change the recommendation.

Board member Gary Chartrand asked Department of Education staff for the rationale, saying the critics made a good point. …

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Florida Board of Education raises concerns over services for English-language learners

Florida Board of Education member Rebecca Fishman Lipsey calls the state's proficiency level for English-language learners "outstandingly low."

The Florida Channel

Florida Board of Education member Rebecca Fishman Lipsey calls the state's proficiency level for English-language learners "outstandingly low."

Changes to federal law have the Florida Department of Education proposing several amendments to state rules for English-language learners, including one proposal that has many advocates up in arms.

The recommendation to lower the proficiency level on Florida's annual assessment for ELL students hase raised concerns that children could be labeled as not needing language services and then pushed out of the program before they are ready.

Mary Jane Tappen, executive vice chancellor for K-12 education, told the board that data indicate students have not been "exited" from the program in larger numbers even as their proficiency rates rose with a new test, implemented last year. Reasons vary, Tappen said, but include the fact that the test score is just one factor considered by a panel of educators who review each student's needs.

The recommended rule includes a projection that 18 percent of students would demonstrate proficiency, compared to 2 percent if the old rule remained.

Board members admitted to being baffled by what they considered a counterintuitive result that lower standards would yield fewer students qualifying to leave the program. They said it raised more basic concerns. …

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Are class size counts on their way out for Florida's class size enforcement?

The House PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee discusses scaling back penalties on class size violations.

The Florida Channel

The House PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee discusses scaling back penalties on class size violations.

Both chambers of the Florida Legislature this week advanced bills that would end penalties for schools that do not meet voter mandated class size requirements at the classroom level.

SB 808 and HB 591 would eliminate fines on schools with classrooms that miss the mark, instead allowing them to measure class size as a schoolwide average. The legislation faced no opposition in either the Senate Education Committee or the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee.

Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg, did ask the obvious question: "Is this a workaround to the constitution?"

Voters have twice rejected changes to the amendment, which they imposed in 2002. It mandates classes of no more than 18 students in kindergarten through third grade core courses, 22 in fourth through eighth grades, and 25 in high school.

Lawmakers, urged on by school district officials who bemoan the inflexibility of implementing the rules, have changed the laws governing the mandate several times. They have redefined several courses to not be counted, and allowed "schools of choice" to avoid the stricter counts. Charter schools also have not been subject to the classroom-level requirement. …

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Wary about science under Trump, USF graduate students seek support

TAMPA — Anxious about an uncertain future for research under the Trump administration, University of South Florida graduate students have challenged USF to defend science.

President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts could seriously hamper funding for student researchers, PhD candidate Erin Sauer said at a panel discussion at USF on Monday. She spoke for graduate students in requesting an official statement from USF that would highlight the importance of science, stand up for USF researchers studying climate change and “specifically comment on the serious consequences of science denial and science funding cuts.”

It’s not the role of the university to step into the political arena during times of tension, university general counsel Gerard Solis replied. Instead, USF’s role is neutral: to educate scientists, philosophers and academics who can go forward and, with good evidence, convince others of what they believe is right.

“The university doesn’t have tenure. Faculty members have tenure,” Solis said. “The university doesn’t have free speech. Individual citizens have free speech.” …

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Florida education news: Testing, busing, superintendent hiring and more

TESTING: The Florida Senate Education Committee begins a conversation on what changes to bring to state testing, the News Service of Florida reports.

STUDENT TRANSPORTATION: Martin County parents angrily criticize the school district's plan to eliminate courtesy bus rides for students living 2 miles or closer to school, TC Palm reports.

SUPERINTENDENTS: The Duval County School Board calls a special meeting to discuss what to do if superintendent Nikolai Vitti quits, the Florida Times-Union reports.

BOARD POLITICS: The Lee County School Board veers away from creating new member districts amid lawsuit concerns, the Fort Myers News-Press reports.

IMAGE: A Palm Beach County teacher complains to about the way it portrays teachers in one of its ads, the Palm Beach Post reports.

SCHOOL DAYS: The Flagler County School Board approves its 2017-18 calendar after months of wrangling, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reports.

LABOR NEWS: Santa Rosa County teachers and school district officials select a magistrate to help resolve their salary negotiations, the Pensacola News-Journal reports. …

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Catapult Academy, a school for at-risk students, may open in Pinellas

Another school option for Pinellas County's at-risk youth may be available beginning in August.

School district officials broached the idea at a School Board workshop on Tuesday of opening a Catapult Academy campus in St. Petersburg for up to 200 over-age middle school students, high school students at risk of dropping out and students returning from Department of Juvenile Justice programs. The school would offer a blended learning model of in-person and online instruction in two, five-hour sessions daily.

Students with behavior problems are often reintegrated into zoned schools or district alternative schools, which is where students returning from juvenile justice programs are often enrolled. Enrollment at Catapult Academy could be ordered by a judge as a diversion program.

"We continually try to nip at this issue: chronic misbehavior," said Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego.

The sixth through 12th grade school is not a charter school but would be privately run under the oversight of the school district. Catapult will receive 90 percent of the school's state funding and Pinellas will keep 10 percent. …

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Religious expression bill keeps moving in Florida Senate, without changes

Sen. Dennis Baxley says his bill clarifies when public school students and personnel may speak about religious issues.

File photo

Sen. Dennis Baxley says his bill clarifies when public school students and personnel may speak about religious issues.

The Florida Senate pressed ahead Tuesday with legislation that would give students and personnel more freedom of religious expression in the state's public schools.

SB 436 has become a priority of Senate President Joe Negron, even as critics have questioned its constitutionality. Florida House members scaled back a once-identical HB 303 to answer some of the concerns.

But Sen. Kevin Rader, D-Boca Raton, withdrew his amendment to convert the more expansive Senate version into the revised House measure.

In discussion, sponsor Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, deemed the proposal simple matter of clarifying  that "rights to religious expression do not stop at the property line. This is America." Asked by Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, what the bill does that the First Amendment does not, Baxley said it does nothing that's not in the U.S. Constitution.

Isn't it already clear that students and personnel can pray privately during non-class time, Clemens asked.

"It's clear to me," Baxley said. "I'm not so sure it's clear to teachers." …

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Florida House subcommittee advances bill to monitor pre-k student gains

Times file photo (2014)

Since Florida voters approved a voluntary prekindergarten program 15 years ago, early education advocates have stressed the need to know how well the children and their schools have performed during the year.

That means assessing student abilities at the start and the end of their program. 

"Not tested. I'm not talking about baby FCATs here," key proponent David Lawrence explained in 2007, as he critiqued the program. "He would be assessed for how ready he is. How is he doing? Where is he vis-a-vis early literacy? How is he doing socially and emotionally? ... That assessment would then form your child's instruction and learning for the next several months. We would say ... he does real well in this and this, but he needs some help in this and this. And then during the course of the year a teacher would help him. And then at the end of the year we would minimally see, where is he now? What did he get from the program? And in an ideal program, this would be done several times during the year."

The Florida House PreK-12 Innovation subcommittee on Tuesday moved to turn that longstanding suggestion into reality.  …

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Gradebook podcast: Does new Florida law hurt school districts seeking construction funding?

Times file photo

The Bay County school district recently pulled the plug on a planned new school after learning state laws could hinder its ability to get sufficient financing. Reporter Jeff Solochek spoke with James Loyed, the district's finance services manager, about the concerns leaders have, and how the scenario might play itself out in growing school districts across Florida.

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Florida education news: Construction funds, charter schools, recess and more

NEW DIRECTION: Hillsborough County superintendent Jeff Eakins talks about the challenges and changes he's experienced since taking the top spot in the nation's eighth largest school district.

HIGHER ED: The Florida House takes a different direction than the Senate on proposed changes to the state's college and university system, the News Service of Florida reports.

CONSTRUCTION FUNDS: The Legislature could come up $36 million short in PECO funds if it does not agree to borrowing, the News Service of Florida reports.

IN COURT: A federal judge allows to go forward a lawsuit contending the Collier County school district illegally blocked immigrant students from enrolling, the Naples Daily News reports. 

ALLEGATIONS: A former Lakeland High School athletic director is accused of inappropriate communications with a student, the Ledger reports. • A former Duval County teacher who abruptly resigned over accusations of sexual misconduct with a student faced a similar situation at a past job in Virginia, the Florida Times-Union reports. • An Escambia County teacher is arrested after colleagues report she hit a student with autism, the Pensacola News-Journal reports. …

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Florida Board of Education to meet one member short, one expired

Florida Board of Education member Michael Olenick with Gov. Rick Scott

State of Florida

Florida Board of Education member Michael Olenick with Gov. Rick Scott

When the Florida Board of Education convenes on Wednesday in Tallahassee, its membership will remain one person shy of a full panel.

Gov. Rick Scott has yet to replace John Padget, the Monroe County businessman and one-time schools superintendent whose second term expired in December. Padget is not eligible for reappointment.

Orlando lawyer Michael Olenick's term also ended in December. Scott has not placed Olenick's name back before the Senate for consideration, or chosen anyone else for the slot.

But unlike Padget, Olenick will continue to attend board meetings and vote on agenda items, which this week include a turnaround plan for Jefferson County schools and a principal pilot project for Pinellas, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

The reason he can stick around comes straight from the Florida Constitution. Article II, Section 5 states that public officers shall "continue in office until a successor qualifies." Statute further defines state officers to include "an appointed member of each board, commission, authority, or council having statewide jurisdiction, excluding a member of an advisory body." …

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Florida House panel moves to make some state tests publicly available

Rep. Randy Fine wants several state tests to be made public for parent review.

The Florida Channel

Rep. Randy Fine wants several state tests to be made public for parent review.

Since Florida's public education system relies so heavily on testing, Rep. Randy Fine says, it only makes sense that parents should be able to see what those tests look like.

His bill (HB 549) aims to do just that, creating a rolling three-year schedule to release, at a minimum, the exams for third grade language arts and math, tenth grade language arts and Algebra I. The Legislature requires students to pass three of the four for promotion or graduation.

"So much is driven around these tests," Fine, a Palm Bay Republican, told the House PreK-12 Quality subcommittee. "I think it makes sense for us to know what we're evaluating."

Fine noted that, as it stands, children receive instructions not to repeat the test questions outside of the testing room. (State rules do allow them to discuss the exams with their parents.) When asked by Rep. Kamia Brown, D-Ocoee, whether the state uses the same questions each year, Fine responded, "I can't answer that exactly, because I can't see the test."

Such a lack of transparency makes it difficult for parents to help their children learn from their mistakes, observed Rep. Matt Willhite, D-Royal Palm Beach and a bill cosponsor. …

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