Call for a grand jury: Gov. Ron DeSantis is calling for a statewide grand jury to investigate the actions of districts on safety and security in schools, and has issued an executive order relating to security in schools and the shooting deaths of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland a year ago. He’s ordered a state review of all school district discipline diversion programs, a reopening of the application period for districts to ask for funds from the armed guardian program, and is authorizing the Florida Department of Education to collect and maintain a database for timely school safety information. “We’re not where we need to be,” DeSantis said. “We want to make sure we’re doing all we can so folks can have safe schools.” Sun Sentinel. Miami Herald. Palm Beach Post. Gradebook. News Service of Florida. Associated Press. Florida Today. WPTV. WTLV. Orlando Weekly. Sunshine State News. Florida Phoenix. WLRN.
Parkland, one year later: Families of the 17 Parkland shooting victims will visit graves, work on community projects and mourn privately to observe the one-year anniversary of their deaths, while schools around the state pay their respects with moments of silence, memorial services and more. Associated Press. Florida Today. Sun Sentinel. Palm Beach Post. Daily Commercial. WLRN. WTSP. One year later after the massacre, students and teachers reflect on what’s changed. Education Week. Victims’ demands for accountability for the shootings has yielded mixed results. United Press International. This teacher changed schools after Parkland. But she can’t escape the memories of that day. Palm Beach Post. It’s a new world for school policing, too. Florida Today. Six things we’ve learned about safety in schools since Parkland. The 74. The Broward district will be implementing the camera software system named Avigilon in high-risk school. It allows security officials to easily track a student around campus by his appearance. Washington Post. A top Florida teachers union official praises Stoneman Douglas students for their activism after the attack. The Hill.
TALLAHASSEE — Three students from rural, impoverished Jefferson County on Tuesday testified before Florida’s House Education Committee about dramatic improvements at their schools since 2017, when the local district relinquished control of its traditional public schools to a charter school operator.
Prior to the historic transformation, Jefferson County had been among the state’s lowest-performing districts for about a decade. More than half its high school students had been retained in a grade at least twice. In 2016, just 7 percent of its middle schoolers scored on grade level on state math assessments compared to 26 percent in the next-lowest performing district.
In 2017, the Jefferson County School Board voted unanimously to turn over management of its lone primary and secondary schools to Somerset Academy, based in South Florida. Although the state is home to dozens of charters that were converted from traditional public schools, never before had converted charters comprised an entire school system.
Ayana Bradley, a junior at the Jefferson County K-12 high school, told lawmakers Tuesday that before turnaround efforts, students were unmotivated, as many teachers dressed unprofessionally and seemed more interested in gossiping with students than educating them.
“There was no one there for us,” she said. “We had to learn to push ourselves, and some kids didn’t know how to do that. Sometimes they just wouldn’t come to school. Somerset taught us we have a chance at life.”
She added: “We’re not just numbers, we actually mean something. Now, people believe in us – that we can become better and mean something to someone.”
Ayana is now taking dual enrollment classes through Doral College. She wants to attend the University of Central Florida and become a nurse.
The schools’ turnaround was assisted by Academica, a charter school service and support organization in Miami, and Doral College President Doug Rodriguez, who has acted as a consultant since the charter takeover.
“The district had consistently low performance and it was under oversight of the Department of Education,” Rodriguez said. “The district had shrunk in size. There should be about 1,500 students in the district. In 2016-17, there were about 715 students. It’s grown as the school became more successful.”
Rodriguez described Jefferson County as a community with many needs. All students in the district are on a free and reduced-price meal program, and many families in the area do not have their own transportation.
Changes that spurred improvement included hiring new teachers, while retaining many with 25 or more years of experience; philanthropic and logistical support from Academica; and an investment of $5.1 million from Somerset Academy – money that came from loans and grants, Rodriguez said.
“And we changed the teachers’ pay scale,” he said. “We made them among the highest-paid teachers in the state, while they had previously been among the lowest.”
Principal Cory Oliver said major renovations to the schools’ campus have been instrumental in the district’s turnaround.
Students said they wanted a culinary arts program, so a state-of-the-art cooking lab was added, as were eight new portable classrooms, an arts building, a new band room, and a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) lab.
The district has begun seeing academic gains.
In 2017-18, Jefferson County’s passing rate jumped 60 percent in math for grades 3-8. No other district in Florida came close to that rate of improvement. The previous year, Jefferson County was the state’s lowest-performing district in that category.
In 2017-18, six Jefferson County high school students were taking dual enrollment classes; this year, the number has grown to nearly 40. And this year, for the first time in a decade, two seniors have been accepted to the University of Florida.
Jamal Washington, an eighth-grader, told legislators that before the charter takeover, students didn’t have educators they could talk to about personal issues.
“There was no one to share our feeling or emotions with,” said Jamal, who wants to be an air-traffic controller. “Since Somerset came, everybody’s trying to get on track and graduate with their class. I want everybody to graduate with me.”
Freshman Alexis Arnold, an aspiring pediatrician, agreed.
“It’s now a contest of who gets the highest grades,” she said. “Everybody’s paying attention in class and nobody’s skipping anymore. You don’t see as many fights.”
Responding to a question from committee vice chair Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, Oliver said the decision to allow a charter school organization to take over the district wasn’t overwhelmingly popular.
“The school district is the No. 1 employer in the county,” he said. “That community bridge is something we’ll continue to work on. But we’re building a huge network of support, so people can see the changes and growth.”
Committee chairwoman Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mt. Dora, said she was moved by the students’ testimony.
“They are why we make sacrifices to be here,” she said. “This is the fruit of the good consequences of good policies that have been passed.”
The population was booming on the Gold Coast in the 1990s, surging by 20 percent in Broward and Miami-Dade alone, just as Florida passed a new law opening the door to charter schools.
Maggie Fresen Zulueta, who helped create one of the state’s first charter schools, remembers the pressures well. “The schools were severely overcrowded,” she said. “You had situations at the nearby public schools with multiple trailers in their fields.”
Zulueta and her husband opened Somerset Academy in Miramar with a dual purpose – to give parents a different learning option for their students and to help the school district cope with overcrowding. And she remembers it as a partnership with the Miami-Dade School Board.
“In Broward and Miami-Dade counties, they knew they had this big challenge with providing adequate facilities for the huge population growth,” said Zulueta. “They were appreciative of the help to alleviate the problems. They did not see us as a big threat.”
Two decades later, two counties in Central Florida – Lake and Osceola – are facing similar growing pains and they are turning to the same playbook. They are adding charter schools as a piece of the overall growth strategy.
Hope operators: Two charter school companies have been named the state’s first “Hope operators” in a unanimous vote by the Florida Board of Education. Somerset Academy, managed by Miami-based Academica, and IDEA Public Schools of Texas will now have access to low-cost loans for facilities, state grants, a streamlined application process and exemptions from some state laws if they apply to open “Schools of Hope” within five miles of persistently low-performing public schools. Somerset based its application on the work it’s done since taking over the Jefferson County School District, and IDEA puts on emphasis on college preparation. IDEA has already identified Tampa and Jacksonville as possible locations for schools. redefinED. Tampa Bay Times. Politico Florida.
School security: An increase of nearly $100 million in the state budget for school security probably isn’t enough to put an armed resource officer in every school, according to a report from the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. The superintendents are asking the Florida Board of Education to support their request that they be allowed to use the $67 million that’s in the so-called guardian program to train and arm school personnel, much of which will likely go unspent because many districts oppose the idea. News Service of Florida. The Palm Beach County School District expects to receive $6.1 million from the state as part of the new law requiring resource officers in every school. District officials say that will be enough to hire 75 officers and cover every school. Palm Beach Post. Brevard County school officials expect to get $2.4 million from the state, but say the cost of putting an officer in every school will be $7.8 million. Florida Today. U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, asks Attorney General Jeff Sessions to direct $75 million in the federal spending bill toward putting police officers into schools. Gradebook. School board in Martin and Leon counties vote to allow only trained law enforcement officers to carry guns in schools. TCPalm. Tallahassee Democrat. WFSU. The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Department is looking for 14 candidates to become school resource officers at 12 elementary schools in the unincorporated areas of the county, at a cost of $1.1 million. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Bradenton Herald. School security will receive extra funding if Marion County voters renew a 1-mill property tax that was approved in 2014 to provide $15 million a year for more teachers and for art, music, physical education and vocational programs. Ocala Star-Banner.
Extension denied: Oscar Patterson Elementary School won’t get an extra year to turn around its string of failing grades, the Florida Board of Education decides. Bay County School Superintendent Bill Husfelt appealed to the board for an extra year to get the school’s grade up to a C, so a decision on whether to close the school or turn it over to an outside operator could be delayed. Principal Darnita Rivers called the state’s decision “disappointing but not discouraging.” Panama City News Herald. WMBB.
Student activism: Hundreds of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students, parents and teachers are traveling to Washington, D.C., for the March For Our Lives rally Saturday. Another 800 or so marches calling for stricter gun laws are planned in cities around the world, and more than a million people are expected to participate. Miami Herald. Associated Press. Other Florida students will take part in local ceremonies. Sun-Sentinel. Orlando Sentinel. Gradebook. Palm Beach Post. Daytona Beach News-Journal. Bradenton Herald. Naples Daily News. Florida Today. Fort Myers News-Press. TCPalm. Five Stoneman Douglas students who have become national figures in the #NeverAgain movement to change gun laws make the cover of the April 2 Time magazine. Sun-Sentinel. Miami Herald.
Schools of Hope operators: Two charter school companies apply to become Florida’s first “Schools of Hope” operators. Somerset Academy, which recently took over the Jefferson County School District, and the Texas company IDEA Public Schools were approved by the Department of Education, and the Florida Board of Education votes on their applications Tuesday. Hope operators get a streamlined process to open schools in areas with persistently low-performing schools, and access to low-cost loans for facilities and grants to pay for things such as longer school days. redefinED.
School security: The Miami-Dade County School Board is considering a pilot program giving schools the option of requiring students to wear clear backpacks. Miami Herald. Hendry County schools will require students to wear clear backpacks for the 2018-2019 school year, but Charlotte and Lee counties will not. WZVN. Charter schools are struggling to find money for school security. There’s no road map for agreements between local public districts and charters on finding guards for schools, who those armed guards will be, or who will pay for them. redefinED. The Sarasota County School approves spending more than $1 million beyond what it will receive from the state to place armed law enforcement officers in each of the district’s 21 elementary schools. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. The Monroe County School Board is considering asking voters to approve a tax increase to pay for police officers in schools. Key West Citizen. At a town meeting, Hillsborough County parents quiz school officials on what’s been done and what’s being planned to keep students safe. School officials say their plans hinge on funding. Complying with state laws will create a $16 million deficit in security costs for the district, they say. Tampa Bay Times.
An award-winning South Texas charter school network and the group behind an unprecedented rural North Florida turnaround could soon become Florida’s first official “Schools of Hope” operators.
IDEA Public Schools and Somerset Academy charter schools both applied to become Hope Operators. Department of Education staff found they met the requirements. The state Board of Education is expected to vote on their applications when it meets Tuesday in LaBelle.
Hope Operators gain access to a streamlined application process if they want to open new schools in the vicinity of an existing public school with persistent D and F grades. They can get low-cost loans to help pay for facilities, and grants to help pay for things like extended school days.
The Schools of Hope program was a priority of outgoing Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who wanted to recruit more nationally regarded charter school operators to low-income areas.
IDEA is a fast-growing operation, started in South Texas and now spreading across the Lone Star State and into Louisiana. It won the national Broad Prize for charter school excellence in 2016, and used the money to help undocumented immigrant children attend college. It qualified as a Hope Operator because it’s received financial backing from a federal program to encourage the growth of high-quality charter schools, as well as through the Charter School Growth Fund.
Somerset qualified as a Hope Operator because of its turnaround work in Jefferson County. The South Florida nonprofit runs schools in mostly urban areas of Florida. It works closely with the management company Academica, which also runs Doral, Pinecrest and Mater Academy charter schools.
Both organizations have a positive effect on students’ reading and math scores, according to a recent national study of charter school networks.
School funding: Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida House appear headed for conflict over education funding when the Legislature convenes next Tuesday. Scott wants to boost education spending by allowing local districts to collect more in taxes as property values increase. House leaders say that’s a tax hike, and they won’t let it happen. Ten years ago, the state provided 62 percent of public education funding. That slipped to 52 percent in 2007-2008 and is at 57 percent now. That 5 percentage point difference would have added $1 billion to the $20.6 billion spent on education this year. Gradebook.
Cold-weather cancellations: Alachua County schools remain closed today, but most others are open although some continue to curtail extracurricular activities. WEAR. Florida Times-Union. Gainesville Sun. Ocala Star-Banner. Daily Commercial. WFSU. WJAX. WKMG.
Education court fight: The legal battle between school districts and the state over H.B. 7069 is one of five potentially far-reaching Florida court fights that may be decided this year. News Service of Florida.