CLEARWATER - From boosting academic performance to making sure students are prepared for new, tougher academic standards, teachers in Pinellas County face many challenges in the upcoming school year, especially those who have never taught in a classroom.
About 200 new teachers showed up at Pinellas Park High School this week for a two-week course in running a Pinellas County classroom. The New Teacher Institute, which runs through Aug. 1, encompasses everything from creating classroom rules to building relationships with students.
"You can never really prepare for your first year, and that makes me nervous but excited too," said 22-year-old Kassie Rehg, a University of South Florida graduate who will teach in Pinellas Park High's First Responder program starting next month. "I don't really know what to expect, what I've gotten myself into."
This year's crowd is smaller then usual, mainly because the training, which is typically a three-day course with about 300 teachers, started earlier in the year to give teachers more time to develop usable lesson plans, said staff developer Kim Leitold. Most hiring happens in August, so not all of Pinellas County's new teachers are in place.
It's hard for new teachers in the Pinellas County school system to know just what to expect when they enter their classrooms, Leitold said. One of the biggest differences between Pinellas and other counties is the volume of different cultures, academic backgrounds and socioeconomic levels in schools. The county also has a large number of struggling schools and significant achievement gaps between black and white students. During the school year that just ended, there were 18 D and F schools in the county, many of which struggle with high teacher turnover rates.
"Our district is spread out from Tarpon Springs to the Skyway Bridge, and there's lots of communities in between, so there are lots of differences," Leitold said.
"Schools with a high Hispanic population are next to schools that have high poverty next to schools with affluent families."
Many new teachers gravitate toward elementary schools and schools with serious challenges; new teachers coming in with a fresh perspective may be best suited to fix those problems, Leitold said.
For Samantha Fritschle, who will be a second-grade teacher at Maximo Elementary in St. Petersburg next school year, one of the biggest challenges will be separating her own emotions from her responsibilities teaching students at the F-rated school. Fritschle worked as a reading coach this past school year at Melrose Elementary, which faces many of the same challenges as Maximo.
"The first big wake-up call to me was listening to these kids' stories," said Fritschle, 31. "They're hungry, they come from horrible home lives, and it's heartbreaking.
"That was the hardest part: realizing that I can't take them all home with me. I have to really push them. There are kids who still need help learning their ABC's, but when they're pushed they can read whole books."
Maximo Elementary is one of five so-called turnaround schools in Pinellas County - schools with a history of low test scores and school grades, where all the teachers and administrators had to reapply for their jobs this year.
The county's other turnaround schools - Azalea Middle and Melrose Elementary, both F schools in St. Petersburg, and Pinellas Park Middle and Fairmount Park Elementary in St. Petersburg, both D schools - will also see a high number of new teachers and administrators. New hires at those schools will receive $3,000 recruitment bonuses, with the opportunity to earn more if they stay for several years and do well on their evaluations.
New teachers may also have the upper hand when it comes to preparing for the Common Core standards, which teachers are implementing into their lesson plans next academic year before it is fully adopted in 2014-2015. Although the school district is requiring all teachers to go through Common Core training with their schools, many new college graduates may be better suited for the shift in teaching, which focuses more on reading and writing and expects students to be able to defend their answers. St. Petersburg College and the University of South Florida already teach to the Common Core, Leitold said.
"I'm really learning a lot more from the younger people that are here about the new styles of teaching, and it really is what good teachers should be doing all along instead of feeding kids answers," said Debra Nunn. Nunn has taught in public, private and charter schools in Polk and Pinellas counties for 20 years and will teach ninth- and 10th-grade English at Osceola Fundamental High School in Seminole.
"The younger kids really have a leg up," Nunn said.