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Florida schools roundup: ‘Schools of hope,’ waivers, scholarships and more

‘Schools of hope’: Just 11 struggling Florida schools are designated “schools of hope” by the Florida Board of Education. More than 50 schools applied, and the state’s new education law set aside about $52 million to provide extra funding to as many as 25 schools. Each of the 11 schools will get $2,000 extra per student to provide such additional services as tutoring, counseling, more teacher coaches and salary supplements for teachers to run student clubs. The “schools of hope” are Lucille Moore and Springfield elementaries in Bay County; Homestead Middle, Lorah Park Elementary, Miami Carol City Senior High, West Homestead K-8 and Toussaint L’Ouverture Elementary in Miami-Dade; Gove Elementary, West Riviera Elementary and Palm Beach Lakes High in Palm Beach; and Idyllwilde Elementary in Seminole County. Education Commissioner Pam Stewart says she will allow the schools that didn’t get chosen to amend and resubmit their applications. She said the next round will add no more than 14 schools to the program. News Service of Florida. Palm Beach PostGradebook. Politico Florida. WLRN. Florida Times-Union. State Board of Education member Gary Chartrand says the state needs to quickly complete its rules for implementing charter school legislation. The charter companies the state hopes to recruit are starting to make decisions now about where to open new schools, and need to know the rules before expanding into Florida. redefinED.

Waivers requested: The Central Florida School Boards Coalition, which represents 13 school districts, is asking the state to grant waivers for class size violations penalties because of the influx of students from the islands who were displaced by hurricanes. The coalition is also asking for more time to count students, more money to educate the displaced students and for “flexibility” on the state’s school accountability rules. School districts in the coalition are Brevard, Highlands, Hillsborough, Lake, Manatee, Marion, Orange, Osceola, Pasco, Polk, Seminole, Sumter and Volusia counties. Orlando Sentinel.

‘Schools without rules’: An Orange County private school with a troubled past took in $5.6 million in state scholarship money in five years even as it falsified fire safety inspections, hired people with criminal records and didn’t pay some of its teachers. Last summer, the state finally banned Agape Christian Academy from the scholarship programs for 10 years. Orlando Sentinel. A private school operator in Brevard County continued to benefit from the state scholarships even after one of his three schools was closed when he was charged with felony lewd or lascivious molestation. Orlando Sentinel. Here’s a list of private schools in Florida that have students who get scholarships from the state though the tax credit, Gardiner or McKay scholarship programs. Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer the tax credit and Gardiner programs. Orlando Sentinel.

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Florida schools roundup: Scholarship oversight, tests, charter ban and more

Scholarship oversight: Florida’s school scholarship programs serve about 140,000 students and redirect almost $1 billion a year to private schools, but state regulation of those schools is so weak that many employ teachers who aren’t college graduates, falsify safety records but continue to stay in business, and fail to educate students without suffering the consequences public schools face, according to a newspaper’s investigation. The number of students using tax credit, Gardiner or McKay scholarships has more than tripled in the past decade. Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer the tax credit and Gardiner scholarship programs. Orlando Sentinel.

Testing the tests: The Florida Department of Education hires a company to evaluate whether the SAT and ACT tests can replace the state’s 10th-grade language arts Florida Standards Assessments and algebra I end-of-course exams. The Legislature required the review as part of the new education law, H.B. 7069. The assessment is expected to be finished in time for Education Commissioner Pam Stewart to make a recommendation on the substitution by Jan. 1. Meanwhile, Stewart says the department won’t decide on whether to delay the spring assessments testing window until after the hurricane season is over. Gradebook.

Charters schools: For the first time, the 50 or so charter schools in Palm Beach County were banned from this year’s “Showcase of Schools,” an event to show parents some of the most popular programs offered in county schools. School Superintendent Robert Avossa says the charter movement is “about spurring competition. So if that’s the case, why would you invite the competition to your event?” The incident is the latest in the escalating fight between district officials and charter schools. Palm Beach Post. The Florida Commission on Ethics rules that charter schools are not public agencies, but instead are more similar to business entities. Politico Florida.

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Heartache in Puerto Rico hits close to home for Ocala school

From left to right, Mario Vazquez, AVA tech, Nicole Rivera, Joselyn Figueroa, and Lori Silloway, staff at Ocala Preparatory Academy, all have family in Puerto Rico. Credit: Ocala Preparatory Academy

When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, Joselyn Figueroa was beside herself.

A student aide at Ocala Preparatory Academy, a private school that serves 50 students in Marion County, Fla., Figueroa did not hear from her parents for five days.

She could only wait, listening to news reports, stunned that a historic Category 4, near-Category 5 hurricane wrought havoc on the island she called home for many years.

She described the phone call that she finally received, after days of waiting, as “beautiful.”

“I needed to hear their voice to tell me, they are OK,” she said.

Her mother and father were safe but shaken by the storm. They lost their home. They now struggle to find food, water and medicine. Figueroa’s mother had a kidney transplant and needs to get her monthly medication. They live in the small agricultural town of Yauco. It was founded in 1756 and dubbed “Coffee City.” It was once known as the global capital for the caffeinated crop. They don’t know how it will rebuild.

“It is so frustrating for me,” Figueroa said. “I hear my mom tell me, ‘Everything is destroyed around here.’”

She found support from the school where she works. It’s home to several members of Florida’s growing Puerto Rican diaspora. Its students and staff have witnessed the island’s mounting humanitarian crisis from afar. And now, they are looking for ways to help. Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Teacher shortages, spending, recess and more

Teachers needed: Just days before the school year begins, school districts in west-central Florida still need hundreds of teachers. Hillsborough County has the most openings, 205. Pasco needs 128, Polk more than 110 and Sarasota, Hernando and Citrus counties are also hiring. Pinellas County has just seven jobs left to fill. “You have 67 public school districts in Florida, so we’re all competing for that same small group of students that are graduating from Florida universities and colleges,” says Teddra Porteous, assistant superintendent in Polk County. WFTS. WTSP. Lakeland Ledger. WFLA.

Spending analysis: The Duval County School Board delays an outside audit of the district’s spending, opting first to have the board auditor and district staff do an analysis of how the district spent $21 million more than it was budgeted to last year. Two state representatives had asked for an audit, which board members rejected. Now those members are saying they will likely have an outside audit done after the spending analysis. Board chairwoman Paula Wright says the first analysis should be able to narrow the focus of the second, which should lower its cost. Florida Times-Union.

School recess: Elementary students in Pasco will get their 20 minutes of free, unstructured recess every day. The district’s new student progression plan calls for “at least 100 minutes of supervised, safe, and unstructured free-play recess each week for students in kindergarten through grade 5 so that there are at least 20 consecutive minutes of free-play recess per day,” according to the plan. Decisions on how to make that happen will be made by each school’s principal. Gradebook.

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Florida schools roundup: Opt-out case denied, alternative exams and more

Opt-out decision: The Florida Supreme Court announces it will not consider a lawsuit brought by parents against several school districts for retaining their 3rd-graders because they opted out of taking the Florida Standards Assessments tests. The decision lets stand a court of appeal ruling that the lawsuits should have been filed in the home counties of the districts, rather than in Leon County. News Service of Florida.

Alternative exams: Florida students who fail two key tests needed to graduate have alternative tests they can take – but the standards for those alternatives could be changing. Students have to pass the algebra 1 test and the 10th-grade language arts exam that is part of the Florida Standards Assessments to earn a diploma. Students who fail can take the SAT or ACT for language arts, or the PERT for algebra. But a state panel is recommending that the PERT be eliminated, with the PSAT replacing it, and that the passing score on the SAT be raised from 430 to 500. The Florida Board of Education will decide on the proposed changes. Orlando Sentinel.

Gardiner scholarships: The expansion of the state’s Gardiner scholarships for students with disabilities has been so broad and rapid that even the namesake, former state Sen. Andy Gardiner, worries that the program is straying from the original intent to provide help for children with the most severe disabilities. The program has grown from $20 million in 2014 to $100 million this year, and the criteria for qualifying has broadened so much that students with peanut allergies now are eligible for vouchers. Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer the program. Politico Florida.

Turnaround schools: Today, the Florida Board of Education will consider a turnaround plan for the newly combined Gadsden County High School, which is merging East and West high schools. Both schools received D grades from the state this year, and both have had ongoing disciplinary problems. The plan would likely mean a change in administrators, teachers, curriculum and the length of school days. Turnaround plans will also be considered for Hawthorne Middle School in Alachua County and Hamilton County High School. Tallahassee Democrat. Continue Reading →

Florida schools roundup: Testing conflict, report cards, lawsuit and more

Testing conflict: The Florida Association of District School Superintendents is objecting to the state’s plan to dump the Postsecondary Education Readiness Test for high school students as an alternative to the algebra I end-of course exam. The Department of Education says the PERT standard is too low, and is recommending the PSAT as the alternative. Superintendents say both the PSAT and PERT should be options until the state has studied the relative value of each. The group also opposes the state’s plan to increase the SAT score required to use as an alternative to the 10th grade language arts test, arguing the state’s proposal raises the level to college readiness. Gradebook.

Late report cards: A provision of the new state education law will delay the issuing of end-of-year report cards by several weeks in 2018. The law pushes back all state standardized testing into the final three weeks of the school year, which means the Department of Education now has until June 30 to deliver test results to districts. The districts then factor in the test results and issue report cards. The only exception will be for 3rd-graders’ language arts test results, which must be delivered to districts by May 31. Gradebook.

Lawsuit issues: The education bill, H.B. 7069, was written to allow specific provisions to be found unconstitutional without the whole law being invalidated. But a threatened lawsuit against the law could challenge it on the grounds that it violates the state constitution’s rule requiring laws to address a single subject. If that happens and is successful, it would threaten everything else in the bill, from an expansion of the Gardiner scholarships for students with special needs to mandatory daily recess for elementary students. Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer the Gardiner scholarships for the state. redefinED.

Top teachers: Florida’s teacher of the year will be named Thursday night by the Florida Department of Education. The finalists are Katelyn Fiori, an elementary school teacher from Indian River County; Diego Fuentes, who teaches children with disabilities in Marion County; Tammy Jerkins, who teaches pre-calculus in Lake County; Vanessa Ko, a middle school math teacher in Pinellas County; and Michael Miller, a 5th grade teacher in Osceola County. The winner gets $25,000, a trip for four to New York City for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, and a year out of the classroom to be an education ambassador for the state. Orlando Sentinel. Continue Reading →

Lawsuit coming against major Florida education legislation

School districts plan to take the state to court to challenge a massive new education law Gov. Rick Scott signed last month.

The lawsuit could attack several provisions intended to boost charter schools, but the wide-ranging law has what’s known as a “severability clause.” That means if one part of the law is found unconstitutional, other parts will survive.

But one aspect of the lawsuit could try to invalidate the 274-page law in its entirety. A legal memo reviewed by the Broward County School Board before it voted to approve the lawsuit contends the law might violate a rule in the state constitution that says laws can only address one subject.

The case still hasn’t been filed, so the exact legal arguments against the law could change. Still, a single-subject challenge could create uncertainty for every provision of the new law, from the $30 million appropriation that funds Gardiner Scholarships for children with special needs* to new statewide recess requirements.

This wouldn’t be the first time a major school choice law faced such a lawsuit. In 2014, the statewide teachers union tried to challenge a wide-ranging law that, among other things, created the Gardiner Scholarship program. The lawsuit ultimately failed after a judge ruled the union didn’t have legal standing to bring the case.

The Broward memo also outlines other legal arguments taking aim at provisions supporting charter schools: Continue Reading →

Florida schools roundup: Waivers, religious expression, charters and more

State seeks ESSA waivers: The Florida Department of Education is seeking waivers to the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in its draft for public comment. The state wants a transition period for students who aren’t fluent in English, a waiver on reporting student learning gains, and a waiver on the rule that requires school grade changes if 95 percent of every subgroup doesn’t participate in testing. The public can submit comments here until July 31. Orlando SentinelGradebook.

Religious expression: School districts around the state are starting to prepare for the implementation of the new freedom of religious expression in schools law. Students will now be permitted to include religious beliefs in their schoolwork, and pray at school. Some educators expect little change, since the law already permits those things. Others worry that the law will encourage some teachers to veer into religion-based instruction that ignores commonly accepted facts. Many districts are waiting for guidance on the issue from the Florida Department of Education before writing local policies. Tampa Bay Times.

Charter marketing: An Orange County charter school has budgeted almost $250,000 of taxpayer money over three years to advertise for students. The K-6 Renaissance Charter School will open later this summer on the south side of Orange County, with 661 students expected. To help fill those seats, the school has budgeted $148,725 for marketing in 2017-2018, $55,539 in 2018-2019 and $40,498 in 2019-2020. A spokesperson for Charter Schools USA, the for-profit company that was hired by Renaissance to run its schools, says the ad spending is “smart marketing,” and added, “Parents choose charters for a variety of reasons. We have to market it to let parents know it is there.” Orange County School Board member Linda Kobert says, “Charters have a different set of rules. The school district, the state of Florida, and the taxpayers have no say in how charters spend those taxpayer dollars.” WFTV.

Meal policies reconsidered: Schools across the United States are reconsidering how they deal with students’ meal debts. This month, the U.S. Agriculture Department is requiring districts to inform parents about school meal payments at the start of a school year, and encouraging districts to contact parents directly about delinquent accounts so children don’t go hungry. Several states are going one step further, prohibiting meal shaming or denying food to delinquent students. Associated Press. The Clay County School District is hiking prices for school meals next year. Breakfast at all schools will be $1.50, up 25 cents. Lunch at elementary schools will be $2 for, 25 cents more, and $2.25 at secondary schools, up 15 cents. Florida Times-Union. Continue Reading →