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Staff at five struggling Pinellas schools must reapply for jobs

LARGO - Staff members at five Pinellas County schools will have to re-apply for their jobs as part of a dramatic effort to turn around the schools after years of poor test grades. School district officials submitted their plan to the state Tuesday and told staff members what was happening at Azalea Middle School, Maximo Elementary and Melrose Elementary, all F schools in St. Petersburg; and Pinellas Park Middle and Fairmount Park Elementary in St. Petersburg, both D schools. The schools have known the changes were coming for a while, Superintendent Michael Grego said at a School Board workshop Tuesday, where the turnaround plan was discussed. A preliminary plan was submitted to the state in November, and the schools have had poor performance grades for at least two years, he said. “It’s no secret we were moving toward a district turnaround option,” Grego said. “We have 18 D and F schools right now in our district. In my world, that’s not acceptable.”
The state gave Pinellas County school officials several options for turning around the schools. They could close the schools, convert them to charter schools, hire an outside company to run the schools or create a district-managed turnaround plan. Pinellas chose the later, which Grego said was “the least disruptive option.” Under the district plan, all members staff at the schools will be asked to reapply for their jobs. If they are asked not to return, they could be reassigned to other schools within the school district. Some people could know whether they can stay at their current schools as early as next week, Grego said. All staff members will be in place by Aug. 19. It’s unlikely that teachers will be out of a job completely, as they could be moved to other schools, Grego said. Student learning gains, retention rates and other student-driven data will factor into decisions on who stays. Staff members will also be required to attend extra professional development seminars, and schools will add extra full-time literacy, math and science coaches, said Pinellas Turnaround Officer Charlene Einsel. Each school’s plan will be customized to fit its needs, but all the schools will have to meet those requirements. “The key to turning around schools is to avoid the turnaround,” Grego said. “If there was one silver bullet, I think people smarter then us would have discovered it already. It will take a series of changes.” The schools are all in high-poverty areas and have struggled with high turnover rates for years, Grego said. Going forward, the school district won’t allow teachers to just be assigned to the schools, saying it would be “better for young teachers to cut their teeth somewhere else.” Teachers recruited to or retained at the schools will receive a $3,000 bonus, paid for from the school district’s operational budget, and principals will receive $5,000 bonuses. Staff members could receive bonuses of as much as $2,000 if grades start to improve. At Melrose Elementary, where 97 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches, 29 of 41 instructional staff members asked for transfers next year. At Fairmount Park Elementary, where 96 percent receive free or reduced-price lunches, 40 out of 67 requested transfers; and at Maximo, where 90 percent get free or reduced-price lunch, 30 out of 56 asked for transfers. “Mobility rates have been off the charts every year; we’ve known that for a long time,” said School Board member Terry Krassner. “There have not been many constants for them at all, and when you’re up against all those odds, even if we build in some of the money, I don’t know how we’d really retain good teachers.” If the incentives seem to work and grades at the schools improve, the school district could keep them in place indefinitely, though new funding sources will have to be identified, Grego said. Twenty-seven schools across the state have been instructed to enact similar plans, Grego said. Two of those are in Hillsborough County. At least 10 other Pinellas schools, all of which dropped from a C to a D this school year, are in danger of falling into the same category. If any of schools receives a second D, the school district will have to submit another turnaround plan. A third D would require the plan to be put in place. In many cases, schools are saved by their highest-performing students. At Bay Point Middle School in St. Petersburg, 84 percent of students in the magnet program scored a 3 or better on the FCAT in reading during the 2010-2011 school year, but only 28 percent did that in the traditional program, said School Board member Linda Lerner. “If these schools didn’t have magnet programs with academic criteria to get in, they would be right in the same boat,” Lerner said.

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