Choice list of schools a challenge to decipher
By KELLY RYAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001
Think choosing your child's school, under a new Pinellas County plan, will be as easy as deciding whether little Johnny or Jenny would rather learn about zebras or volcanos?
This week, parents will open their mailboxes and find a survey asking which school they would choose for their children if Pinellas' new choice plan were starting this fall instead of 2003. Parents are supposed to make choices based on short paragraphs each school provided to describe its strengths.
Some offer vivid descriptions of campus life, pointing out how many computers are in each classroom, special programs to help children learn to read or the breadth of after-school activities.
The rest would appeal only to educators.
Those are filled with edu-speak, describing such selling points as Kagan's Cooperative Learning Strategies, Classroom Learning System (CLS), CRISS Strategies, Student Achievement Model (SAM) and Baldrige Quality Principles.
"Don't even get me started with all those acronyms," said Celeste Callahan, a volunteer at Oak Grove Middle School. "I don't understand why they would describe themselves in terms that are not parent-friendly."
Even School Board member Linda Lerner, who was elected in 1990, stumbled over the jargon. She confessed that while she knows generally what the terms mean, she would not know enough to explain them.
In general, those terms explain how educators manage schools and classrooms. Some of the terms describe how teachers use data to track student progress. Other terms describe teaching approaches, such as using group work or encouraging students to set their own goals and pace.
"I had a lot of questions, and I am pretty knowledgeable," Lerner said. "I think it could have been made simpler."
On the survey, numerous schools describe themselves in general, generic terms, noting that they are "family centered" or "student oriented," or that they are committed to "highest student achievement" and making sure "no child is left behind."
Isn't that what all schools are supposed to be?
The jargon-filled way schools described themselves frustrated several board members, who already are worried that the general public continues to be puzzled about the choice plan. The district has hired a consultant to find ways to explain choice and other initiatives in plain English.
"In the absence of a glossary of what they are, it's meaningless," said School Board member Jane Gallucci. "We have to do a better job of communicating our curriculum, our way of work, our strengths."
Freddie Robinson, Kennedy Middle School principal, said some parents understand the lingo because schools offer training sessions for families and write about classroom management in newsletters. But she and others, including Southern Oak Elementary principal Robert Ammon, agreed that not all parents understand those words.
So, why were they included?
"Those were just some strategies that the county has put in place for us," Robinson said. "They're just best practices throughout the county."
The survey won't affect which schools students attend for the next two years. It is a way for the School Board to gather information about what will influence parents' choices -- specialty programs, proximity to home, a school's reputation -- as they make other decisions about how choice will work.
Superintendent Howard Hinesley, who said he has not seen how schools described themselves, said the survey and related focus groups will let the district know if those are widely understood words or gibberish to most parents.
Hinesley said that all schools in the district are supposed to adopt those teaching approaches, so they are not really the best way to describe how a school is unique.
"Maybe what we could have done was write the things for them, but what we attempted to do was to let the schools write what they think would attract parents," Hinesley said. "When we get feedback, we'll find out whether it was written clearly."
Choosing schools is a new process for many parents, most of whom have sent their children to schools near home. Marketing schools is also a new process for principals, most of whom have never needed to work to attract students. Privately, some principals are griping that choice just means more work -- and more paperwork -- in things they are not trained to do.
Jim Madden, a former elementary school principal now in charge of the choice plan, sent out sample descriptions to schools so they would follow a common form. Those samples mention Kagan's Cooperative Learning Strategies and Classroom Learning Systems, and Madden guessed some schools just copied the template he provided.
"I think part of it is, that's second nature, that's the way we talk within the school," said School Board member Carol Cook. "If I was a parent just picking, it sounds real impressive, but I am not sure I would know what I am looking at."
Between now and the actual onset of choice, school leaders will have plenty of time and help sharpening their marketing skills.
Within the next few months, the district will hire a communications expert whose job will be to help schools. A committee is writing guidelines about how schools should market themselves.
Some schools knew what to do without the help.
Dunedin Highland Middle School proudly described its Scottish heritage, mentioning students playing bagpipes. Madeira Beach Middle School painted an inviting picture of its marine science program with its boardwalk, dock and lagoon.
"We knew that the audience was going to be primarily parents and students sitting down together," said principal Brenda Poff, whose school purposely avoided education lingo. "We wanted to use language that would be clearly understood."
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