ST. PETERSBURG — Fourteen new principals, new school programs, new standardized tests and new classroom strategies are just a few of the changes at Pinellas County schools as students head back to class Monday.
The school district has spent the summer training teachers for the new statewide education curriculum, called the Florida Standards, as well as for new standardized tests. School officials have the added pressure of school evaluations spread throughout the year to determine whether the district qualifies for accreditation, a goal Superintendent Michael Grego set when he came to Pinellas nearly three years ago.
Here is a look at some of the biggest changes and challenges this school year:
New accreditation and evaluations
The district hopes to achieve accreditation for all schools, including virtual schools, through AdvancedED, a national accreditation agency for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. The accreditation holds schools to a higher standard and ensures they are competitive with neighboring districts, Grego said. Schools will ask parents to take an online survey in September on how to improve student achievement and administrators’ effectiveness as part of the process. Of the 67 school districts in Florida, more than 40 are accredited, including Hillsborough and Pasco.
This also is the second year for the pilot teacher evaluation program. The appraisal, a joint effort with the school district and Learning Sciences International in West Palm Beach, addresses teachers’ concerns with the state evaluation model, which relies on complicated equations of students’ standardized test scores. This year the pilot evaluation will add 16 schools to the original five.
Fourteen new principals are being ushered in this year, many because of poor student performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests and low school grades. Last year, five Pinellas schools were ranked among the worst 20 in the state based on students’ reading gains, with Melrose Elementary in St. Petersburg landing at the bottom of the list. Eleven other Pinellas schools had low enough reading results that they will be required to add an hour to each school day for students to get more reading instruction.
In the 2012-13 school year, five Pinellas schools were required by the state Department of Education to undergo a “turnaround process” after years of low FCAT scores and school grades. Last year, nine more schools fell into that category. Teachers and principals at those schools had to reapply for their jobs, and many will have new staffs. The summer was spent making sure those teachers got “tremendous amounts of training on school improvement structures and where we go from here,” Grego said.
The new principals are Kristen Sulte at Azalea Elementary, Kristina Bauman at Bay Vista Fundamental Elementary, Kristy Moody at Douglas L. Jamerson Elementary, Robert Kalach Jr. at Gulf Beaches Elementary, Garyn Boyd at Kings Highway Elementary, Shannon Brennan at Mildred Helms Elementary, Bonnie Solinsky at Pinellas Gulf Coast Academy, Belinda Atkins at Ozona Elementary, Cecilia Palmer at Safety Harbor Elementary, Carrie Johnson at 74th Street Elementary, Daphne Miles at Sunset Hills Elementary, Raquel Payne Giles at Tarpon Springs Middle, James Joyer at Tarpon Springs High and Tammy Keiper at Woodlawn Elementary.
Four new middle school magnet programs launch this year. Azalea in St. Petersburg and East Lake, which will be housed on the East Lake High School campus, will start Engineering Gateway to Technology programs.
Pinellas Park Middle is starting a Cambridge Pre-Advanced Certificate of International Education program, and Tarpon Springs Middle is starting a Leadership Conservatory for the Arts with Pre-Cambridge Advanced International Certificate of Education. A new single-gender state pilot program is opening in the Science Center of Pinellas in St. Petersburg for about 44 middle school boys at risk of dropping out of school. The program is funded by AMIkids Pinellas, which received funding from the Legislature to expand dropout prevention programs.
The district also is expanding its science, technology, engineering and math academies, from 63 elementary and middle schools last school year to 78 elementary and 22 middle schools this school year. Robotics clubs also will increase, from seven last year to 10.
Two new technology-focused elementary magnet programs open, two schools are repurposed, and two schools are getting major face-lifts.
Kings Highway Elementary in Clearwater and Gulf Beaches Elementary in St. Pete Beach will reopen at nearly full capacity as Centers for Innovation and Digital Learning. Students will work on collaborative hands-on projects using electronic devices such as tablets and laptop computers.
The school district also is taking over a failed charter school, Pinellas Gulf Coast Academy, to serve ninth- through 12th-grade students at risk of dropping out. The school, at 1199 East Bay Drive, Largo, will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. to give students flexibility to schedule their coursework. Students will work at their own pace to make up course credits but have the option to take elective courses in digital music and art.
Palm Harbor University High School is adding 38 classrooms, eliminating the need for portables. The $13 million project could be completed by June. Largo High will be rebuilt completely by fall 2016, a $55 million project. The school’s buildings were demolished this summer, and the 1,700 students will take classes in 48 portable classrooms and at the former Largo Central Elementary School.