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Closed Pinellas schools may reopen with tech focus

CLEARWATER — It’s been nearly five years since the hallways of Gulf Beaches and Kings Highway elementary schools echoed with the sounds of children, but by next August the Pinellas County School District could breathe life back into the abandoned schools.

School board members gave initial support last week to explore reopening the schools, which would take enrollment applications from students across the county and would focus on technology. In addition, Kings Highway could have about 10 classrooms dedicated to voluntary pre-kindergarten classes for children throughout Clearwater, Superintendent Michael Grego said. Though the schools were closed in 2009 due to waning enrollment, if reopened they would be at the forefront of innovation.

Instead of desks, students would sit at portable tables that could be wheeled around the classroom. Textbooks would be replaced with tablets, smart phones and desktop computers. Students could easily form groups to work collaboratively on assignments as teachers observe and foster discussions instead of lectures.

“We’ve done a lot of dreaming ... and the sky is the limit here,” said Pam Moore, associate superintendent of teaching and learning services. “Now, we lecture at schools and assign homework to see how it went, but let’s reverse that ... and use homework to teach or preview concepts so time spent in the classroom with the teacher is where they can observe where students’ thinking goes awry.”

The school board will hear more details about how that would be accomplished and what it would cost at a workshop in January. Grego said both schools are in “pretty good, if not terrific shape.” Depending on how quickly the school district can open the schools and how many seats will go to students in the surrounding communities, officials could hold a second application period later this school year for those hoping to attend. The hope is the schools would be attractive to students outside the area, and also to those stuck on long wait-lists for magnet and fundamental programs, Grego said. Gulf Beaches in Boca Ciega would be the only public school on the barrier islands.

“When we closed the schools we had to do it because of the economy, but we isolated people geographically. Now, we have two areas where we have no schools,” O’Shea said. “When we have no schools, the community goes away, and this will help bring that community back.”

The school district hasn’t opened a new school in 10 years, but under Grego it has a renewed focus on providing parents with more options. If the school board is supportive, funding for the schools could be identified, Grego said. School district data shows that community support is already there, Director of Student Assignment Bill Lawrence said.

After Gulf Beaches Elementary closed in 2009, 41 students — or 21 percent of the school population — opted for private or home schooling. Of the students in the school’s zoned area still enrolled in public schools, about 50 percent attend a magnet, fundamental or charter school. About 56 percent of students living near King’s Highway attend a school of choice, Lawrence said. Across Pinellas, choice programs are reaching capacity.

“Our data continues to tell us that our demand for programs of choice exceeds our supply, as evidenced by our wait lists ... and these are the kind of schools that our parents are screaming for,” Lawrence said.

Reopening Gulf Beaches would take some students out of nearby Azalea Elementary, which would open space at there for a much-needed voluntary pre-K program without paying for additional construction or portable buildings, Lawrence said. Data shows similar levels of interest around Kings Highway, and an even greater need for pre-K.

The schools also could serve as models for other teachers and schools facing the same technological changes, school board member Linda Lerner said. Current statutes require school districts to begin moving instructional materials from text books to digital content, and the schools could be an “excellent testing ground” for bring- your-own-device policies, something the school district previously has wrestled. Kings Highway could hold 522 students and Gulf Beaches 342 students, with room to add a middle school in the future.

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