As classes let out across Florida, school district leaders continue to analyze how they're going to balance their budgets given the constraints proposed by state lawmakers. Reporter Jeff Solochek and editor Tom Tobin discuss the concerns district finance officials are raising as they look at the budget while waiting for it to arrive at the governor's desk. They also talk about Florida's ranking in a new national study on prekindergarten programs, and the Pinellas County school district's latest plan to eliminate the achievement gap among students of different races.
Armwood High School graduates line up at the Florida State Fairgrounds
A longstanding high school graduation tradition is falling by the wayside -- and some say it's about time.
One by one, some schools have abandoned the practice of dressing graduates in gowns of contrasting colors, white for honors students, or those with a high grade point average; and a darker color for the rest.
"I have brought up the issue at church and at work and I could see the visible facial trauma of those adults who told me their high school had different robes based on GPA," former School Board candidate Cathy James wrote in a letter to Supervisor Jeff Eakins. "Graduation should be a time of celebration, not segregation. Each member of a graduating class should remember their graduation ceremony as a unification with their classmates, not another example of how we divide each other."
A quick spin through the webast videos shows that some high schools -- Gaither and Armwood, for example -- still use contrasting robe colors.
The president of St. Petersburg College is calling on Gov. Rick Scott to veto a proposed budget cut that slashes community college funding in a time of declining enrollment and tuition revenue.
State lawmakers cut funding for the Florida College System’s 28 community colleges by $25 million. SPC stands to lose $1.8 million.
The could mean fewer class offerings for students and fewer support services like tutoring and career advising, SPC said in a news release. It could mean students take longer to graduate.
“Delaying that graduation makes life very difficult for everyone,” said SPC President William Law, who will retire this summer. “When money is coming back to the state, it’s hard for us to understand why the state wouldn’t find a way to put a few dollars in the Florida College System and keep us whole. ... Any reduction in funding that threatens those support systems is detrimental to students.”
Community college enrollment works in tandem with the economy. During hard times, people head back to college. Now, as the economy is rebounding, enrollment is down, which means less revenue for colleges like SPC. …
Former Campbell Park Elementary principal Christine Hoffman will retire pending School Board approval. Hoffman created an uproar in April when she sent an email to staff directing them to keep white students in the same class when creating classroom rosters.
Pinellas County school district superintendent Mike Grego announced her retirement in an email sent to School Board members on Friday. Board members will hold a vote to approve her resignation at a June 6 board meeting.
Grego said Hoffman's retirement ends an internal school district investigation that stemmed from her April 18 email.
"It is our practice to close administrative investigations without findings if an employee retires or resigns before an investigation is completed," he wrote.
Hoffman requested to be transferred off campus until the investigation was complete. Grego also called in a third-party investigator to look into the incident.
The St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP, which had called on Hoffman to resign, released a statement that the organization was "pleased to learn" of Hoffman's decision to retire. …
Scores from the district finals Pasco County students took in recent weeks will not count toward their semester grades or grade-point averages, superintendent Kurt Browning said Friday.
"After hearing from a number of teachers and parents who are concerned with the outcomes, we need to step back and take a look at the results across the district and review the tests that were offered," district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe explained.
Browning and School Board members have received a steady stream of emails complaining that the district-created exams, put in place to evaluate teachers, did not match course curriculum and standards. Several have pointed out that even honors-level students were failing the tests, which the district was going to count as 10 percent of their grades.
"Based on the grades for the seniors I had in my Pre Calculus classes ..., I believe that NO item analysis was done," River Ridge High math teacher Doug Howery wrote to Browning. …
For the second straight year, Gov. Rick Scott has approved a three-day sales tax holiday for back-to-school shoppers.
Scott signed the legislation (HB 7109), which included several other tax breaks, into law on Thursday.
The school shopping tax holiday is set for Aug. 4-6. It applies to clothing, school supplies, personal computers, and personal computer-related accessories. The tax exemptions do not apply to sales within a theme park or entertainment complex.
Until 2016, Florida's sales tax holiday for school shopping ran 10 days. Lawmakers scaled it back to three days, and temporarily exempted computers, amid tighter budgets last year.
Scott said cutting taxes is good for Florida's businesses and families. "Every time we cut taxes, we are encouraging businesses of all sizes to create opportunities for families across the state and more money is put back in taxpayers' pockets."
Pine View Elementary School in Land O'Lakes has won approval to become a Primary Years International Baccalaureate school, extending the rigorous program down to the K-5 level in the central Pasco County feeder pattern leading to Land O'Lakes High.
The elementary will be an official candidate school in 2017-18.
The idea has been to create a continuum of services for children who want to progress to the highest levels of IB. The program in the younger years does not require application as the high school model does. It is expected to be an attractor, though, while aiming to keep students in the school system.
It's similar to the effort to offer the Cambridge program in the San Antonio Elementary-Pasco Middle-Pasco High feeder zone. District officials have been working to make the schools more attractive to families, as charter school enrollment has grown. …
From the report: "Several generations of students were educated in the region's diverse schools, but much of the progress is eroding as the South undergoes another shift toward a triracial region where no one group comprises a majority of students. Instead of leadership to successfully prepare schools for this new demographic reality, many Southern states have passed laws making public schools less welcoming for students from immigrant families. States across the region are also establishing multiple means for students to leave public school districts, either through charter schools or expanding voucher programs for private schools."
The group's data points out that, in 2014, 34.6 percent of Florida's black students and 32.1 percent of Hispanic students attended schools with 90 percent or more minorities. The overall student population was 22.3 percent black and 30.9 percent Hispanic.
Florida also has one of the highest charter school expansion rates, the report notes. …
Darlene Lebo, an assistant principal at St. Petersburg High, is supported by "many" school faculty and staff to be the school's next principal, according to a letter sent to the Pinellas County School Board.
A St. Petersburg High teacher sent a letter on the behalf of "many" school faculty and staff to the Pinellas County School Board and school district superintendent Mike Grego in support of appointing their assistant principal, Darlene Lebo, as principal.
The letter, which you can read here, was dated April 25, almost a month before Northeast High assistant principal Robert J. Gagnon had been selected for the coveted position pending School Board approval at a board meeting held Tuesday, but it was not sent to the school district until May 21. Grego pulled the recommendation Monday, citing "new information shared with me" regarding Gagnon's experience in Lake County nearly 20 years ago. He promised to review the matter "to gain a full understanding before proceeding with a personnel recommendation for this position." …
When Florida began its voluntary prekindergarten program, the criticisms began that it aimed to serve many youngsters but with little quality.
It's been 15 years since voters put the system in place, and the reviews have yet to change.
In a report released Wednesday, the National Institute for Early Education Research found Florida second of 44 pre-k programs nationally when it comes to service, but 40th in terms of per-student funding, and meeting just three of 10 quality measures.
For 2015-16, the state served 76 percent of all eligible four-year-olds -- more than 169,000 in all -- with only the District of Columbia having a better rate.
But its per-student funding amount of $2,353 was less than half the national average of $4,976. By achieving three of the NIEER's quality measures, Florida outperformed just two states, and was far behind nearby Alabama (10 of 10), North Carolina (9) and Arkansas (7). …
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam speaks with Gov. Rick Scott
No, Gov. Rick Scott has not yet received HB 7069, the massive education conforming bill, or the education budget it's attached to.
That's giving everyone more time to continue offering their views on what he might do with the measures when they come to him for consideration.
The Central Florida Public School Boards Coalition, a group of 13 school districts, sent Scott a letter joining many others asking him to veto HB 7069, which includes provisions ranging from expansion of Gardiner scholarships for disabled children to the creation of a new set of charter schools.
The group cites the budget's reduction in base student allocation as a key concern, noting that decrease will make it difficult for schools to meet inflationary cost increases or to give employee raises.
While HB7069 includes some provisions that were advocated for by superintendents and school board members; our primary objection to the bill is that the vetting process by legislators and the public was completely circumvented," coalition leaders Andy Ziegler and Linda Kobert wrote.
State Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, now running for governor, also joined in the criticism. He also focused on the method. …
They're suggesting the passing rates are way too low, and the scores count for too much on a student's report card.
"What research has been done to insure that this test is fair, non discriminating and that it accurately reflects the spirit of the standards, etc.?" one parent wrote to superintendent Kurt Browning, referring to a sixth grade world history test her child failed. "The district has advocated for less 'high stakes' testing and then presented the kids with this type of test that the teachers didn't even really know how to prepare the kids for."
Browning stressed that he does not want to minimize the concerns coming in. However, he said, the test content should not be surprising to teachers, who should be prepared.
They have the course description developed by the state, Browning said, and they have the standards attached to the courses. Moreover, he added, the district also provides blueprints of each course. …
Gradebook features education articles and insights on schools in Florida, focusing on Tampa Bay area schools. What's the latest from the Florida Department of Education? How is the FCAT being used to compare Florida schools? What's going on in Tampa Bay schools? Get an insider's view from the Times education reporting team.