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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

First-quarter numbers in Hillsborough show progress toward graduating more students

The Hillsborough County school district on Monday reported progress in attendance, behavior and grade point averages when this grading quarter was compared to the first quarter of 2015-16.

But the most dramatic improvement was in the area of reading tests required for a standard high school diploma.

In the first quarter of 2015-16, 70 percent of students had met that requirement. That number jumped to 76 percent for this report card quarter.

Much of that improvement came from a strategy called "concordant scores," in which students are encouraged to take another test if they do not pass the Florida Standards Assessment in English language arts and reading in 10th grade. Passing that test is a requirement for a high school diploma. Students can retake the test, or substitute the reading section of the ACT or SAT.

This PowerPoint, posted on Tuesday's School Board meeting agenda, shows that in the 2014-15 school year, 440 students earned their diploma through a concordant score. That number more than doubled in 2015-16, to 1,013. …

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Pasco teachers union gives district more time on mid-year transfer grievance

By contract, the Pasco school district administration had until Oct. 31 to answer a class-action grievance against its new procedure denying teachers the ability to transfer jobs midyear.

With time running out, the district asked the United School Employees of Pasco for more time. USEP leaders agreed to wait until Friday for the answer.

"We hope there's a rethinking of what they put in place," union director of operations Jim Ciadella said.

Superintendent Kurt Browning had tried for three years to stop teachers from switching jobs during the school year, contending the changes disrupted students and schools. The USEP never agreed to change the contract, however, and so Browning decided this summer to put his idea into practice outside of negotiations.

The USEP challenged that move, saying Browning overstepped his authority. If he does not alter his position, the union may appeal to the School Board.

More broadly, contract bargaining has been stalled for several weeks now, with the sides at odds over such issues as pay raises and contract guarantees for effective and highly effective teachers. …

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No more standing-room only for Pasco School Board meetings

Just as Pasco School Board meetings have begun filling up with interested parents, teachers and other residents, the district administration has decided to more strictly enforce the board room's capacity.

Tom Rutledge, the district's fire official, alerted the superintendent's office on Friday about his concerns that the board meetings have grown overcrowded, causing potential fire code problems.

The room's capacity is 99, Rutledge wrote in his memo, and the current seating arrangement is the best the district can do while maintaining its safety requirements.

"Any additional seats added would be blocking the egress paths to the exits doors," he wrote. "It has also been brought to my attention that we have had occupants standing along the walls because all seating has been taken. This cannot take place as it impedes the egress path to the exit doors."

In other words, if you're not sitting in the room, fire code says you shouldn't be in the room. The district is posting new occupancy signs in time for Tuesday's board meeting. …

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Florida education news: Testing, lottery funds, contaminated water and more

TESTING: A Hillsborough elementary music teacher faces dismissal over accusations that she cheated during students' testing.

BACK TO SCHOOL: A Pasco teen returns to high school part-time after a major tubing accident.

REAL WORLD: Older teens at Pepin Academies charter school for students with disabilities gain job experiences in the Hillsborough public defender's office.

TURNAROUNDS: Leaders of an F-rated Polk elementary school tell parents how they plan to improve the school, the Ledger reports. * A struggling Escambia elementary school looks beyond test scores to turn performance around, the Pensacola News-Journal reports.

LOTTO: The Florida lottery does not provide enough money to support needed school construction projects, the Palm Beach Post reports.

SPEAKING OUT: An openly gay teacher sues a private Christian school in Boca Raton, claiming he was discriminated against and fired because he was a whistleblower, the South Florida Gay News reports.

ABUSE: An Escambia teen is found guilty of battery for stripping the pants off another student during a bus ride after a football game, the Pensacola News-Journal reports. …

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Florida education news in review, week of Oct. 23, 2016

Testing, dress codes, integration and other hot-button issues loomed large in the last week of Florida education news. Some districts also continued to struggle with budget shortfalls for operations and capital projects, with some facing imminent votes on referenda for added revenue. Meanwhile, policy makers continued to grapple with how to best hold low-performing schools accountable. Read about all these stories and more daily on the Gradebook.

'I have my future': USF opens new path to admission for community college students, Claire McNeill
"Florida students who complete an associate's degree are able to count on guaranteed admission to a state university - just not necessarily the one they want. The new FUSE program gives them 100 percent confidence they'll end up at USF, at the institution of their choosing, in any one of a dozen select degree pathways. That's big news for students at participating regional colleges. FUSE's fall pilot program drew more than 40 students from HCC and St. Petersburg College. Next year, five more regional colleges will join." …

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Meadow Pointe residents launch petition against Pasco school rezoning plan

Residents of the Meadow Pointe subdivision of Wesley Chapel are sounding stunned that their neighborhood might be rezoned outside the attendance boundaries of the middle and high school closest to their homes.

They have begun an online petition demanding their children remain in their neighborhood school, while also blitzing Pasco school district officials with emails asking for reconsideration. Some of the correspondents have raised concerns regarding transportation and commuting, while others have complained about growth management and potential loss of home value.

A handful have suggested that the district stacked the deck against Meadow Pointe by giving preferential treatment to the Seven Oaks subdivision, the other large community that contributes to severe crowding at Wiregrass Ranch High and John Long Middle. That crowding prompted the construction of a new school (GGG) on Old Pasco Road, which in turn led to attendance zone revisions. …

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National Science Foundation awards USF $1.5 million to aid students in tech fields

TAMPA — There are more jobs open in the technology field than qualified workers to fill them.

But the pathway to a STEM degree isn’t always seamless. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees often take longer to finish, and some students run out of financial aid before they ever get to toss their cap into the air.

The National Science Foundation wants to remove those financial barriers and boost the number of STEM students who make it to graduation.

That’s why it’s giving the University of South Florida nearly $1.5 million dollars in grant funding to support strong students in technology-related programs who demonstrate financial need.

“We expect to support 36 students for about $20,000 each for four years and 115 students for about $2,400 each for their senior year,” said the principal investigator of the grant, Ken Christensen, professor and interim chair in the USF Department of Computer Science and Engineering.   …

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Florida education news: Job cuts, campus housing, school rezoning and more

BUDGET CUTS: The Hillsborough school district slashes six jobs in its construction department to save $750,000.

CAMPUS HOUSING: USF announces plans for a new student residential complex.

STAYING IN-STATE: The University of Central Florida draws the highest percentage of Florida resident students who have earned state college associate degrees, the News Service of Florida reports.

REZONING: Seminole parents asked to have a neighborhood elementary school reopened, and are now upset that the district will rezone students, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

SEX: Students are having sex in southwest Florida schools, Fox 4 reports.

LABOR NEWS: Indian River teachers declare impasse in contract talks over insurance benefit disagreements, TC Palm reports.

PLAY TIME: The Bay school district unveils a new playground fitted for students with disabilities, the Panama City News Herald reports.

CREEPY CLOWNS: Bay school and law enforcement officials tackle clown threats at schools, the Panama City News Herald reports.

NEW SCHOOLS: Brevard district leaders propose new schools to handle increased crowding and growth, Florida Today reports. …

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Struggling Pasco County elementary school makes 'baby steps' toward improvement

Hudson Elementary School principal Dawn Scilex told the Florida Board of Education this summer that she "absolutely" had what she needed to boost her F-rated school to a C grade this year.

As the second quarter of the year began, Scilex said Hudson is making strides, but slowly.

Students' attendance rate is up, closer to 96 percent with 153 having not missed a day, she said, while the number of discipline referrals has dropped. (Part of that is due to a new service program that has misbehaving students cleaning the campus and getting behavior lessons, rather than being suspended, she said.)

Student grade-level performance in some key academic areas, meanwhile, has dramatically risen.

The data chart on her office wall showed that nearly 80 percent of kindergarteners met their math targets, compared to 39 percent at the same time a year ago, for instance. Close to half of first graders were meeting or exceeding their English-language arts goals, compared to 24 percent a year ago.

At the same time, though, Scilex acknowledged, science performance dropped significantly, with some grade level percentages in the teens for meeting their expectations. …

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Pasco superintendent hears teacher transfer grievance

United School Employees of Pasco officials are awaiting superintendent Kurt Browning's response to their complaint that Browning violated their contract with his mid-year teacher transfer ban.

Two teachers testified Monday as part of the union's presentation that they were denied moves to different schools solely because of the superintendent's edict, which never was agreed upon during negotiations.

"I would say they listened very intently," USEP operations director Jim Ciadella said. "I feel we made a good argument."

He suggested that Browning's summertime announcement that mid-year transfers would stop prompted principals to deny requests, despite contract terms detailing transfer procedures.

"We're trying to rectify that," Ciadella said.

The administration has five days after the hearing to respond. District officials said they are working on a formal letter to the union, which may appeal to the School Board if it does not like the result.

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Naming ideas pour in for new Pasco County schools

Every time the Pasco school district prepares to open a new school, it turns to the community for ideas on how to name the campuses.

School Board members have tended to favor place names in the recent past (Wiregrass Elementary and Anclote High, for example). But that never stops the suggestions for honoring people, recognizing history or, sometimes, just being random.

This year is no different.

For the new high school (GGG) on Old Pasco Road, the proposals include:
- Bellamy Brothers High, after the local country band.
- McKendree Ranch High, after the family that homesteaded the site.
- Lucy Morgan High, after the retired Tampa Bay Times award-winning reporter who started her career in Pasco County.
- Quail Hollow High, for its proximity to the Quail Hollow neighborhood and elementary school
- Cypress Creek High, for the nearby water body

For the new elementary school (B) in the Bexley Ranch subdivision, the proposals include:
- Bexley Ranch Elementary, for its location
- Lt. Charles "Bo" Harrison Elementary, after the former Sheriff's Office officer who was gunned down while on duty
- Royal Tern Elementary, after the local bird species …

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ACLU cautions Pasco's Ridgewood High School over dress code threat

A Ridgewood High School administrator's threat of arrest for a student planning a dress code protest has brought a stern rebuke from the ACLU, which offered in turn a threat of its own.

"Civil-rights lawsuits in federal court are an expensive and often-unnecessary means of resolving disputes over whether a school can use its disciplinary powers to silence criticisms of school rules and policies," Jennifer Morley, president of the Greater Tampa Chapter of the ACLU of Florida, wrote in a letter to school and district officials.

"We remind the school that federal law provides for awards of attorney's fees to successful civil-rights litigants," Morley continued. "Should the school punish Mr. Banaciski for his off-campus speech, and should he challenge the punishment in court on First Amendment grounds and prevail, this could result in a substantial attorney-fee award against the school district." …

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Florida education news: College access, charter school politics, rezoning and more

GETTING IN: The University of South Florida guarantees admission to students from certain colleges who have earned their associates degrees.

COMMUNITY DIVIDE: Parents in the Meadow Pointe subdivision of Wesley Chapel hurl criticism as a Pasco school rezoning committee recommends changing their homes to a different school.

BENEFITS: Some Manatee teachers face a health insurance premium hike for the first time in years, the Bradenton Herald reports.

HELPING HAND: The Marion education foundation reinvents itself to help more students, the Ocala Star-Banner reports.

CHARTER SCHOOL POLITICS: The clout of charter schools in Tallahassee could hinge on political races in Miami-Dade, the Miami Herald reports.

ACADEMIC CHALLENGE: The Palm Beach district will expand International Baccalaureate into three more schools, the Palm Beach Post reports.

CONSTRUCTION FUNDING: The Volusia School Board considers bonding against anticipated sales tax revenue to jump start a school construction project, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reports.

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Plaintiffs in desegregation case suspend negotiations with Pinellas County Schools

The plaintiffs in a Civil Rights-era desegregation lawsuit announced Monday that they are suspending informal negotiations with the Pinellas County School District.

In a letter emailed to the district, Enrique Escarraz and Roger Plata, lawyers for the plaintiffs, said that after more than a half-dozen meetings, progress has been “extremely slow and uneven.”

Instead of continuing to meet as scheduled, they are giving the school district two weeks to provide detailed plans related to black student achievement.

“We believe that negotiation meetings have not been proceeding because of the lack of this detail,” the letter said.

School Board attorney David Koperski did not respond to a request for comment Monday. …

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Pinellas School Board candidates invited to pledge support at FAST assembly tonight

About 3,000 people gathered at Tropicana Field for a Faith and Action for Strength Together (FAST) event in April.

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About 3,000 people gathered at Tropicana Field for a Faith and Action for Strength Together (FAST) event in April.

All four Pinellas County School Board candidates have been invited to stand with a faith-based group pushing a bill to curb arrests among children.

Faith and Action for Strength Together, or FAST, has invited the candidates to a St. Petersburg assembly -- one of 10 held around the state -- to pledge to eliminate out-of-school suspensions, reduce unnecessary arrests and support effective reading curriculum in high-poverty schools.

The assembly will begin at 7 p.m. at Holy Family Catholic Church, 200 78th Ave NE. Another FAST assembly will take place at the same time in Temple Terrace at Corpus Christie Catholic Church, 9715 North 56th St.

Three out of the four School Board candidates on the Nov. 8 general election ballot have RSVP'd and sent in short questionnaires that will be printed on pamphlets handed out at the St. Petersburg assembly. They are District 1 At-Large candidates Matt Stewart and Joanne Lentino and District 5 candidate Eliseo Santana.

FAST confirmed that District 5 candidate and incumbent Carol Cook will not be attending. The group said she didn't send in her questionnaire either. …

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