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    Schools prepared to reverse failures

    Local educators have plans to help their failing schools, and the state offers help - and money.

    By STEPHEN HEGARTY, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 15, 2002

    Now that the shock of F grades has begun to subside, school officials in the Tampa Bay area and across the state are getting down to the hard work of revitalizing schools the state has labeled as failures.

    Some districts, such as Pinellas and Hillsborough, already had some changes under way in their F schools. They are ready to do more, examining the tiniest of details to analyze test scores and classroom teaching habits.

    Add to that this factor: The state has a few ideas of its own for turning around failing schools.

    Under the "Assistance Plus" program to help struggling schools, the state is ready to devote a good deal of attention -- and some money -- to those schools.

    But Education Secretary Jim Horne's offer of help, starting with mandatory attendance at an Assistance Plus Summit next month, is drawing mixed reaction from educators.

    "They say they're sending in SWAT teams of people from around the state, coming in to tell the schools what to do," said Pinellas County School Board member Lee Benjamin. "Who are they? Who is he? What makes him the expert?"

    Benjamin pointed out that Pinellas County has plans in place to improve academic performance at its two F schools, Blanton and Gulfport elementaries. He expects those plans to yield results, with or without the state's help.

    Hillsborough County school superintendent Earl Lennard took a more optimistic approach toward the state's overtures.

    "What I plan to do is take whatever aid the state has to offer," Lennard said. "If they're offering reading coaches, I'll take it."

    Lennard also pointed out that his district already has taken significant steps to "reconstitute" the F schools.

    "It's a point of pride for us that we didn't wait for the scores to come out," Lennard said. "We've been working on those schools, and we have plans in place."

    Under the state's assistance plan, the lowest-performing schools can tap into the $11-million "Just Read, Florida" initiative. They will get help from teams of specialists.

    The state already has begun analyzing schools' strengths and weaknesses. Soon the state will visit schools that got two F's to work on a plan.

    The schools also will be matched with higher-performing schools with similar demographic profiles.

    Many of the low-performing schools have a high number of children eligible for the federal lunch program, an indicator of poverty. At eight of the 10 schools statewide that got their second F this week, 87 percent or more of the students qualify for the lunch program. The other two are high schools.

    The state wants to pair up those kinds of schools with schools that are both high-poverty and high-performing. In Dade County, for instance, Floral Heights Elementary might be matched up with Charles R. Drew Elementary. At Floral Heights, 96 percent of the children qualify for the federal lunch program. The school got an F this year. Drew Elementary, where 91 percent qualify, got an A after getting a D last year. At Drew, 94 percent of the children are black, and the remaining 6 percent are Hispanic.

    "Those kinds of schools are not necessarily the norm, but I look at them as lighthouses for good ideas," said James Doud, chairman of the Department of Education Administration, Policy and Foundations at the University of Florida. "You have to take a look at those schools where things are working."

    In Pinellas, one F school might be paired with Mount Vernon Elementary School, which got D's the first three years of school grading. This year, Mount Vernon earned a C. Hinesley credited the support of the school's business partner, Raymond James, which helped boost parental involvement.

    While some educators are wary of the state's role, some states are much more heavy-handed.

    "They could be throwing out the superintendents and removing the school boards," said Kathy Christie, vice president for knowledge management for the Education Commission of the States.

    Florida has no plans to take such steps. Florida is offering assistance, but some states simply take over failing schools.

    Earlier this year, Pennsylvania shifted control of Philadelphia's academically and financially troubled schools to private management companies, nonprofits and two universities.

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