Florida schools roundup: Retentions down, tax rates, testing suit and more

florida-roundup-logoRetentions decline: Fewer than 10,000 Florida third-graders were retained in 2015, a drop of about 40 percent from 2014 and about 25 percent fewer than in any year since 2003. The Department of Education says the blip happened because local school officials had greater say for a year in whether students should be retained, and many of the students promoted would have been retained in any other year. Many school officials say they expect the number of retentions in 2016 to return to previous levels. Orlando Sentinel.

Testing lawsuit: Fourteen parents from Sarasota, Hernando, Seminole, Broward, Orange, St. Lucie and Osceola counties are preparing to file suit against the Florida Department of Education over the retention of third-graders who refused to take the state’s standardized tests. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

District tax rates: Florida school boards are preparing to set local property tax rates that will help determine how much money their districts have to spend. The rates are controlled by the state Department of Education so that wealthy districts don’t significantly outspend poorer ones. Gradebook. The Highlands County School Board approves a slightly lower tax rate while setting an overall budget of just more than $150 million. Highlands Today.

Police in schools: The Marion County School District will pay more to have police officers in middle schools under an agreement reached with the city of Ocala. The district also will have to assume the full costs for the officers after this coming school year. Ocala Star Banner. Escambia County senior sheriff’s deputy Ronnie Gill, the school resource officer at Ernest Ward Middle School in Walnut Hill, is named the top school resource officer in Florida by Attorney General Pam Bondi and the Florida Association of School Resource Officers. Escambia’s SRO unit is also named the state’s best. NorthEscambia.com. Continue Reading →


Florida virtual charter schools try to fend off closure

The school board in Hillsborough County, Fla. is looking to shut down a full-time virtual charter school, citing a range of concerns, including a low percentage of students taking state tests.

Hillsborough Virtual Academy is fighting the closure on several fronts, including an administrative legal proceeding, arguing that most of the problems cited by the district have been addressed.

The case raises a larger issue affecting full-time online schools in Florida, which came into view after the state issued A-F grades to public schools earlier this month: The difficulty of requiring students who take classes on their computers at home to take assessments administered by their school districts in central locations.

Virtual charters represent a relatively new, and relatively small, slice of online education in Florida, which is often cited as a top state for digital learning. They typically lack the authority to proctor the Florida Standards Assessment themselves. Supporters of online schools say as a result, they often struggle to ensure their students actually take all their required tests.

When the state issued preliminary A-F grades, more than two dozen virtual education outfits — including nine online charters, most statewide operations like Florida Virtual School’s full-time program, and a host of virtual programs run by school districts — were rated incomplete, usually because fewer than 95 percent of their students took state assessments.

In the case of the Hillsborough virtual charter, the school board cited a wide range of issues in 90-day termination notice filed earlier this month with the state Division of Administrative Hearings. It also flagged the low number of students taking state tests:

The 2014-2015 school grade was withheld and designated as incomplete (1). It is projected that the 2015-2016 school grade will be designated as incomplete as well, due to not meeting the required 95% participation rate for the state assessment.

School grades have since been issued, and that prediction proved accurate. The legal filing continued: Continue Reading →


From bullying victim to valedictorian

It would have been hard to picture Jasmine Harrington as a class valedictorian in 2012. As a ninth-grader at her south Pinellas County neighborhood high school, she was routinely physically and emotionally attacked by her classmates, and her misery was reflected in a GPA of 0.625.

Until eighth grade, she had been a good student who enjoyed school. Then the nightmare began.

“I went through a terrible middle school experience,” Jasmine said. “Then it followed me into my ninth grade year. I figured ‘We’re in high school now, everyone will let it go.’ But I had the wrong people around me at the wrong times.”

Jasmine Harrington graduation

Jasmine Harrington, left, and her mother Angela Little will both be enrolled at St. Petersburg College this fall. Harrington graduated valedictorian from School of the Immaculata, while Little is set to graduate college after the fall semester.

Jasmine’s mother, Angela Little, was spending more and more time at the school pleading Jasmine’s case to teachers, administrators and resource officers. She was irate and feeling hopeless.

“[Jasmine] made it the first year,” Angela recalled, “only because every day I had to be there 10-15 minutes before school let out, standing immediately right there as she walks out to make sure five or six of them didn’t pummel her.”

“The cyberbullying was horrible. I had to see all this stuff that was on Facebook and in text messages, and I reported all of that to the school.”

Angela followed the school’s procedures and filed complaints. She even went to the homes of parents whose children were involved. Nothing changed Jasmine’s plight.

“I kept continuously getting in trouble and continuously arguing with the same people,” Jasmine said. “It was extremely hard (to focus on school). No teacher, not one of them, could control their class.”

“I never learned. I literally would skip class all day and no one would care.”

Angela knew where Jasmine was headed. Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: LGBT policy, new job, records suit, arts tax and more

florida-roundup-logoLGBT policy: The Brevard County School Board is expected to decide Tuesday whether to expand the district’s anti-harassment policy by banning discrimination against students and staff on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. In April, on a 3-2 vote, the board agreed to schedule a vote on the policy to add lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as a protected class. Florida Today.

Soft landing: A year after new school busing routes caused confusion and delays in Palm Beach County, the administrator most directly responsible for the problem is now making $111,000 a year in a district job in which he supervises three people and makes more than the department director. Steve Bonino was demoted in January from director of operations after the busing crisis, and now supervises the district’s program to remodel school cafeterias. Palm Beach Post.

Records lawsuit: The Orange County teachers union is suing the school district, accusing it of “completely ignoring” state law on open records. The union charges that the district put up roadblocks or ignored requests from the union for documents on employee discipline. saying it did not respond or that it put up hurdles when the union requested documents related to employee discipline. The district has not commented. Orlando Sentinel.

Art referendum: Pinellas County voters will be asked in November to renew a tax referendum that supports arts instruction in the district’s schools. The tax, first passed in 2004, provides about $33 million a year to the district. Tampa Bay Times.

Driver’s ed: Driver’s education classes return to the Bay County School District for the first time since the program was cut to save money about a decade ago. Panama City News Herald. Continue Reading →


The Rebel Alliance for education reform on the left

The story of Democrats for Education Reform gives way to Star Wars analogies in a new analysis released by the American Enterprise Institute. The rebels won a string of improbable victories, but now find themselves having to regroup.

The report is timely, given the recent battle over testing and charter schools in the Democratic Party platform, set to be finalized later this month in Philadelphia.

DFER rose rapidly to national prominence, sped along by its early endorsement of then-underdog Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential primaries. It managed to help shape the federal Race to the Top initiative that transformed education policies in dozens of states, and hold the line for parental choice and school accountability in Congress.

Now, activists are pushing back against charter schools and testing. The two main national teachers unions backed Hillary Clinton early in this year’s primaries, and seem to be regaining their influence within the party. So the new report raises a question: What now?

Realistically speaking, the extraordinary successes of 2008-12 were unlikely to be repeated on any kind of a regular basis, according to Barone. “That’s not something that happens every year or two,” he noted. And, just like in the movies, when the insurgents have some early, unexpected successes, they face inevitable pushback from their more established opponents. “The empire strikes back,” says Barone. “That’s what happens.”

Continue Reading →


Florida schools roundup: Teacher of the year, school infrastructure and more

florida-roundup-logoTeacher of the year: Jessica Solano, a third grade math teacher at Lakeland’s Highlands Grove Elementary School in Polk County for eight years, is named Florida’s teacher of the year. Solano, 29, wins $20,000 and a free trip for four to New York City for Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. She also will serve as the Christa McAuliffe Ambassador for Education, traveling around the state for the next year to talk about education. The other finalists were: Amy Miller, a math teacher and and science coach at Kissimmee Elementary School in Orange County; Precious T. Symonette, a creative writing teacher at Miami Norland Senior High; Laurie Zentz, the band director at Switzerland Point Middle School in St. Johns County; and Donald Blake, a technical education specialist at Marchman Technical College in Pasco County. Each receives $15,000. Lakeland Ledger. Tampa Bay Times. Orlando Sentinel.

School infrastructure: Florida’s schools were given a D grade for infrastructure in an inspection by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Eleven categories were judged. Bridges (B), airports (B-) and ports (B-) earned the highest grades, while schools, stormwater and coastal areas each were given a D. Overall, the state grade was a C. Tallahassee Democrat.

School choice: The standoff between the Florida NAACP and a group of black pastors over school choice draws the attention of Radio One, the largest African American-owned broadcasting company in the United States. NewsOne.

School voting age: Longtime Florida children’s advocate Jack Levine is pushing for a constitutional amendment to lower the voting age for superintendent and school board races from 18 to 16. Politico Florida. Continue Reading →


Helping Florida charter schools enroll more disadvantaged students

Tampa Bay Times columnist John Romano, a frequent charter school critic, published an even-handed column in this morning’s paper. He congratulated local charters for their performance in recent A-F grades, but questioned why they don’t serve as many disadvantaged students as district-run schools.

Charters, which are publicly funded but privately run, have a much higher proportion of middle-class and non-minority students than traditional schools on the Suncoast.

The percentage of students attending traditional schools in Pasco County who receive free or reduced lunches, a predictor of low test scores, is 58.2. For the charters, it’s 36.2 percent.

In other words, that ratio is exactly the opposite of what should be happening.

He’s right. Studies have found that in other states, charter schools frequently serve more disadvantaged students than other public schools, in part because they tend to concentrate in academically struggling urban areas. In Florida, on average, the opposite is true.

The reasons for this are complicated. It may be worth noting that 80,000 of the state’s most disadvantaged children enroll in private schools with tax credit scholarships (Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the program.) In states that don’t have their own version of the nation’s largest private school choice program, many children in similar circumstances may opt for charter schools instead. Continue Reading →


‘We’ve got to figure this out’ – Connnections Education, podcastED

A virtual classroom might include an aspiring tennis pro traveling in Europe, a child in the hospital battling cancer, and a student who left a traditional classroom to escape bullies. Two decades ago, it would be inconceivable that these disparate students would be learning together, with guidance from the same teachers. And it would be just as inconceivable that their school would be judged based on their combined academic performance.

Guttentag portrait


Steven Guttentag, the president and co-founder of Connections Education, one of the country’s largest operators of online charter schools, says the diverse needs of students who enroll in online schools create a “measurement challenge” that neither his industry, nor its increasingly vocal critics, has managed to solve.

“We’ve got to figure this out. We’ve got to have objective measurements,” he says. “That’s key to the charter movement. It’s key to public accountability. I’m not happy where we are. I’m not happy where the industry is with this right now.”

Guttentag joined the latest edition of our podcast alongside Matt Wicks, the company’s vice president for data analysis and policy. They’re responding, in part, to a recent report by a trio of pro-charter organizations that called out virtual charters for poor academic performance and sought changes to the ways they’re funded and regulated.

Matt Wicks portrait


The debate over online charter schools has spilled into charter school conferences, strongly worded press releases and recently, journals of education reform. Critics, including many leading charter school advocates, say the test results at online charter schools are abysmal, which indicates many of their students are making scant academic progress and drags down the performance of the charter movement as a whole.

But people on both sides of the debate have also pointed to nuances — “x-factors” — that may complicate the picture of online school performance. When do the students enroll? What are their expectations when they sign up? Are they trying to raise their test scores, or to solve some temporary, non-academic problem, like safety or a medical issue or a sudden family move? How far behind are they on credits? And how should that affect the way their schools are judged?

Neither Guttentag nor Wicks claims to have all the answers to those questions. But both say they’re convinced solutions are more likely to arise in virtual education systems like Florida’s, which allow multiple flavors of publicly funded online learning. In Wicks’ words, states need to “allow that competition to spur innovation and improvement.”

Continue Reading →