HUR 759: Filed by charter school exec Rep. Manny Diaz eliminates school board authorizing power

November 21, 2015 by


Rep. Manny Diaz, dean of Doral College, a private university run by the state’s largest for-profit charter school management firm, Academica, is at it again. He’s filed another bill to strip school boards of the power to authorize charter schools.  His bill, HUR 759, seeks to create a state level charter school approval process that eliminates districts from the process. Currently, districts are able to approve or deny charters and recent legislation has already given the state has the power to over ride their decisions.

This is not the first time Diaz has tried this legislation. Large for-profit charter school chains such as Academica and Charter Schools USA have ignored the state requirement that charters be innovative. Lobbyists for these groups are currently involved with a dispute in Palm Beach County over what  many feel are predatory charter school applications which offer no new innovations, yet serve to drain highly rated district schools of students making both schools under-populated.

From WFSU:
A massive charter school bill is getting revived ahead of the 2016 lawmaking session. The plan would standardize charter school applications across the state, and change the way such schools are terminated, expanded, approved, or denied.

House Choice and Innovation Committee Chairman Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Miami, says Florida’s current system of approving charters is viewed negatively by some.

“In these cases, the districts acting as authorizers is like McDonald’s telling Burger King where they can open up a franchise, for lack of a better term.”

A similar bill died last session amid legislative in-fighting. The proposal has gotten pushback from school districts who say it interferes with local control, but Diaz says he wants to promote high quality charters.

“What we don’t want to see is barriers put up arbitrarily that prevent quality options to be provided to our kids and our parents,” he said.

The proposal includes language for charters to provide more financial disclosure, and immediate termination for poor performance. It also makes it harder for districts to deny applications. The bill’s return comes as the Palm Beach School district is suing over the process used by the state to override local charter school decisions.





Au revoir French class? Coding could replace foreign languages

November 19, 2015 by

by: Amanda Claire Curcio|Tallahassee Democrat

November 17, 2015

Often, when she is thinking, she’s thinking in French; if she could, she would breathe in French. Everything is lovelier when spoken in French, too — even dreaded subjects like math. To Leon High School senior Jamilah Mitchell, learning the Romance language for the last four years has unlocked a world replete with opportunities.

But if approved, legislation filed last month would limit students’ options of delving deeper into world languages by altering the requirements for the Bright Futures academic scholarship program, which funds tuition at public colleges and universities in Florida.

Students would need to complete two years of computer programming, instead of fulfilling the current two-year foreign language criteria — potentially supplanting the study of foreign languages in school, educators worry.

The bill also mandates that school districts draft proposals to include coding classes in every high school by January 2017, likely overhauling staffing plans and costing districts training dollars.

The underlying aim of SB 468 — introduced by Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Parkland, former executive at Yahoo!, and backed by Republican leaders — is to encourage more high school graduates to pursue computer science in college, remedying the shortage of trained professionals in the field. There is no companion House bill yet and SB 468 has been assigned three committee stops. In 2014, similar legislation died.

Ring later clarified that he intended to afford students another option in meeting the foreign language requirement in Bright Futures — students who opt to take two years of French would not have to enroll in coding, for instance. However, the bill’s language states that two credits of coding courses would be “required” for students who wish to be eligible for the scholarship.

‘Ill-informed and burdensome’

For students like Jamilah — she has no interest in coding, but is also studying Korean and endeavors to learn five languages — the bill only poses obstacles.

“When I am speaking French, I am just happy,” said Jamilah. “Language is an art; language is a smile, but done through spoken communication.

“I wouldn’t be excited about taking a coding class,” she added, shaking her head. “At all.”

While some state schools, like Florida State University, could be willing to tweak its foreign language requirements — “in certain cases,” said Hege Ferguson, a representative from the admissions office — students who are attending private or out-of-state schools could be at a disadvantage if coding is promoted over foreign language, because those institutions do not have any obligation to alter admissions criteria. A majority of colleges and universities require at least two years of foreign language in high school.

Local teacher union representatives view the bill as “another ill-informed and burdensome” educational initiative needlessly thrust upon districts by lawmakers.

“Once again, the legislation is putting things into place that place restrictions on teachers, students and the overall joy of learning,” said David Worrell, president of the Leon Classroom Teachers Association. “There’s a responsibility to ensure that students are prepared for the future, but eliminating the requirement for foreign language is absurd. If anything, students should be focused more on learning languages.”

Not only will kids be unprepared for a global economy, Worrell said, but the bill could eventually jeopardize any number of the 36 foreign language teachers’ jobs at Leon County Schools.

District officials do not expect teacher layoffs in the “immediate future” though, said Randy Pridgeon, LCS divisional director of secondary schools, since many students may opt to take both electives. If colleges begin to accept coding instead, he hypothesized, an eventual decrease in foreign language teaching positions is probable.

If the bill passes, LCS will gauge student enrollment through course surveys conducted in the spring prior to the upcoming school year when the coding requirements would begin, Pridgeon explained. Legislators did not specify which type of programming language, such as C, Python or Java, would be implemented.

The biggest challenge, added Pridgeon, would be hiring qualified coding teachers because they would need to earn requisite education certifications.

Programmers earn a significantly higher salary in the private sector and “retooling” current teachers would cost money. Specifications of computers would have to be adjusted to run instructional coding programs.

Despite expected costs, there aren’t any provisions included in SB 468 that would give LCS more resources associated with this transition.

“I would not suggest making this a legislative priority,” Pridgeon concluded.

A utilitarian approach to education

In recent years, Gov. Rick Scott and legislators have backed Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education initiatives — as a better use of tax dollars to prepare students for rapidly expanding fields, or those that are expected to emerge in the future, they explained.

Some educators say more technical STEM activities “level the playing field” for students who don’t perform well in more traditional classes, like foreign language. Mayor Andrew Gillum, for instance, has already launched the Google CS First program, a coding initiative that exposes students to computer science curriculum, at Cobb Middle School last month.

“With coding, and STEM, students can see how many opportunities can go beyond college and how they play out in workforce and vocational areas,” said Stu Greenberg, LCS chief academic officer. “This unlocks the entrepreneurship of students and triggers creativity and synergy to move kids forward.”

In the U.S., there are 586,982 available computing jobs, but only 38,175 graduates with a degree in computer science, according to, a nonprofit that advocates to increase access to computer science. This gap is expected to widen; by 2020, there will be 1.4 million open computing positions, but only 400,000 computer science students, statistics suggest.

Critics contend this practice of assigning a utilitarian value to learning can be destructive to students.

“Computers are useful, essential tools that enhance students’ learning opportunities, but it cannot replace a course where students are making human connections,” said Colette Clarke, a French teacher at Leon High. “That’s the only thing we say matters — is STEM or something STEM-related? You can’t put students behind a computer and say this is your only accomplishment.”

Clarke says foreign language classes also prepare students in bridging cultural divides — going beyond multilingual skills, such as vocabulary and grammar.  Students are provided a lens to outside traditions, values, food, music, arts and sports of people who “are just like us who live in other countries,” she said.

As a result, students become more empathetic and diplomatic — evidenced during cultural exchanges the school hosts for dozens of French students every year. This cannot happen in a computer class, she asserted.

Professionals in the computer science field say students can receive this sort of cultural enrichment from other classes, like history or English Language Arts, but still disagree with lawmakers’ attempts to make coding mandatory in lieu of foreign language for Bright Futures.

Most programmers, said Michael Viscontini, Chiles High graduate and developer at Canopy Software, can skip college and be successful, so “it doesn’t make much sense” to make it a scholarship requirement. Foreign language is something you need to get into college, but that isn’t the case with computer science.

Viscontini, 27, was an anthropology major at Florida State University until the program was slashed due to budget shortfalls. He decided to leave school and found a job coding. A lot of his expertise stems from on the job training, although he had enrolled in a handful of computer science courses at FSU.

While Viscontini maintains that coding is structurally similar to a language — “it has its own syntax, its own semantic meaning and overall organized structure” — he says students should be able to choose, based on their interests.

“You are potentially short-handing those who are more inclined to do well in languages,” he said. “Instead of arguing one or the other, why not recognize the merit in both fields? You want more people in school, not less.”

read full article here. 

Legislators, Comm. Stewart cry foul over their own “Schools of Choice” double standard

November 16, 2015 by



Regarding the Class Size Amendment, Florida legislators have worked double-time to subvert the will of the people who voted twice for the initiative. They’ve written legislation to ease class size restrictions specifically for charter schools to allow school wide averages for calculations.  They’ve excluded elective courses from class size. The net result is two sets of rules.  One for district schools and another for publicly funded for profit charter schools. Now, when districts decide to avail themselves of some of the liberties that charters enjoy, lawmakers are crying foul.

Many districts have embraced the “schools of choice” label to take advantage of a loophole that allows them to adopt the more attractive charter school rules. So, Sen. John Legg, who runs a charter himself, thinks, “it is time to stop playing shell games.” Commissioner Stewart now wants to define the meaning of a “school of choice.”   Can the legislative intent be any more clear?  They are passing laws to benefit the charter school industry, to give them the financial advantage of hiring less teachers.  These laws are deliberately vague, allowing a broad interpretation to benefit charter management organizations.  And when districts seize some of this love for themselves? No dice.

The people of Florida have clearly expressed a desire for smaller class sizes.  By objecting to school districts taking advantage of a class size loophole meant to benefit charter, Florida politicians have provided a clear example of their ongoing efforts to ignore Article IX, section 1 of the Florida constitution, which clearly requires equity and uniformity.

According to the Tampa Bay Times:

Florida school districts dramatically increased their use of a loophole in the state’s class size law last year, according to newly released Department of Education data that’s bolstering lawmakers’ call for changes to the rule.

By the numbers, districts identified 56 percent more of their schools as “schools of choice” in 2014-15 than a year earlier, meaning that nearly two-thirds of all schools carried that designation. In 2013-14, 39 perecnt of schools had the label, which allowed them to calculate class size as a school-wide average rather than room by room.

Thirty-three school districts had more than 50 percent of their campuses deemed “schools of choice” in 2014-15, up from 27. Among those, Seminole County increased its count from 18 of 61 schools to all of them, Palm Beach jumped from 25 of 177 schools to 153 of 177, and Marion County grew its number from 5 of 53 to 50 of 53.

“This data the commissioner outlined is going to spur some legislative action,” said Senate Education Committee chairman John Legg, who requested the information a month ago. “It is time to stop playing shell games.”

Legg suggested two possible courses of action. One would be to clearly define the term “schools of choice,” which commissioner Pam Stewart noted in a letter to Legg has no clear meaning.

At the very least, Legg said, the schools should have open enrollment with available seats, and some form of innovative academic programs. He criticized districts such as his home county of Pasco, where 100 percent of schools are listed as “schools of choice” despite several being frozen to admission from outside their attendance zones. Pasco also has very few magnet programs, he added.

By contrast, Hillsborough County, known for its aggressive magnet and choice program, listed just 13 percent of its schools in the category. Hillsborough superintendent Jeff Eakins has said that could change for 2015-16, for which data is not yet available.

The other possibility would be to eliminate the loophole and require all schools, including charters and other nontraditional programs, to adhere strictly to the 2002 voter mandate on class size.

Legg, a strong supporter of school choice who runs a charter school, said he preferred the former option. Parents and children deserve choices, he said, and the Legislature tried to provide flexibility for public school alternatives meeting those goals.

He expected action in both the Senate and House.

“I’ve had in-depth conversations with (House Choice and Innovation chairman Manny) Diaz,” Legg said. “He is sharing my concern.”

Diaz could not be reached for comment.

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Why Hedge Funds Love Charter Schools

November 16, 2015 by


by: Alan Singer|Huffington Post

July 20, 2014

Obscure laws can have a very big impact on social policy, including obscure changes in the United States federal tax code. The 2001 Consolidated Appropriations Act, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, included provisions from the Community Renewal Tax Relief Act of 2000. The law provided tax incentivesfor seven years to businesses that locate and hire residents in economically depressed urban and rural areas. The tax credits were reauthorized for 2008-2009, 2010-2011, and 2012-2013.

As a result of this change to the tax code, banks and equity funds that invest in charter schools in under-served areas can take advantage of a very generous tax credit. They are permitted to combine this tax credit with other tax breaks while they also collect interest on any money they lend out. According to one analyst, the credit allows them to double the money they invested in seven years. Another interesting side note is that foreign investors who put a minimum of $500,000 in charter school companies are eligible to purchase immigration visas for themselves and family members under a federal program called EB-5.

The tax credit may also explain why Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg partnered with the former mayor of Newark, New Jersey to promote charter schools, donated a half a million dollars worth of stock to organizations that distribute charter school funding, and opened his own foundation, Startup: Education, to build new charter schools.

The real estate industry, which already receives huge tax breaks as it gentrifies communities, also stands to benefit by promoting charter schools and helping them buy up property, or rent, in inner city communities. One real estate company,Eminent Properties Trust, boasts on its website “Our investment portfolio of nearly $3 billion includes megaplex movie theatres and adjacent retail, public charter schools, and other destination recreational and specialty investments. This portfolio includes over 160 locations spread across 34 states with over 200 tenants.”

The Charter management group Charter Schools USA recommends that rental costs should not exceed 20 percent of a school’s budget. However the Miami Heraldreported that in 2011 nineteen charter schools in Miami-Dade and Broward exceeded this figure and one in Miami Gardens paid forty-three percent. The Herald called south Florida charter schools a “$400-million-a-year powerhouse backed by real-estate developers and promoted by politicians, but with little oversight.” Its report found charters paying exorbitant fees to management companies and that many of the highest rents were paid to landlords with ties to the management companies running the schools.

Tax benefits and real estate investment may also explain why Wall Street is so hot on raising money for charter schools. On Monday night, April 28, 2014, hundreds of Wall Streeters gathered at Cipriani in Midtown Manhattan to raise funds for Success Academy Charter Schools. Former Florida Governor and GOP presidential contender Jeb Bush gave the keynote address. The dinner was chaired by hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb. Loeb is the founder of Third Point LLC and chairman of the board for Success Academy. The gala raised at least $7.75 million for Success Academy. Alsoattending were Kyle Bass of Hayman Capital Management, Joel Greenblatt of Gotham Asset Management, Boaz Weinstein of Saba Capital, John Paulson of Paulson & Co. and Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater USA.

According to The New York Times, the ten highest paid hedge fund operators with close ties to charter schools also includes David Tepper (number 1 at $3.5 billion in 2013), founder of founder of Appaloosa Management and New Jersey based “Better Education for Kids”; Steven A. Cohen (number 2 at $2.4 billion) of SAC Capital Advisors, which was forced to pay a $1.2 billion dollar penalty for insider trading, who has given over $10 million to the Achievement First charter school network; and Paul Tudor Jones II (tied for tenth at $600 million), founder of the Tudor Investment Corporation who has supported charter schools through his Robin Hood Foundation.

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Fair test scores for Florida students

November 15, 2015 by

Alberto_Carvalho CLOSE HEAD SHOT

Opinion|Miami Herald

November 14, 2015

Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho is gearing up for the next round of a months-long battle with the state over flawed standardized student tests that will also determine school grades and measure teacher performance.

The controversy centers on the state’s Department of Education’s plan to use scores from the new state tests given this spring — the Florida Standards Assessment, which replaced the dreaded FCAT. But the new testing proved terribly shoddy. Technical glitches erupted across the state: Students couldn’t log in, computers froze, and testing had to be suspended.

“A mess,” said Mr. Carvalho, expecting less than pristine scores.

He’s not alone in that summation. Superintendents across the state argue it’s not fair to grade schools this year because the computerized versions of the tests were corrupted. Even without glitches, the move to new exams means that in this, the first year of the new tests, there is no benchmark to measure gains and growth in learning against the previous year.

The stakes are high: In Florida, test scores help determine student advancement, state-issued school grades, even teacher evaluations and pay.

Despite the state superintendents united an unprecedented revolt — joined by the Florida PTA and a number of other entities —education board members are expected to meet Dec. 4 to discuss their next step in the testing quagmire.

“We’re holding our breath,” Mr. Carvalho and members of his staff recently told the Editorial Board. So should students and teachers.

When the state releases those tainted, old scores, the Miami-Dade school district fears they will not fully reflect advances made by the district, advances that Mr. Carvalho says are reflected in scores from other reliable assessments.

And if your child was tested, you should wholeheartedly support Mr. Carvalho’s effort for a one-year extension or another fair resolution. After all, releasing grades so late means students will be getting results of a test they took nine-months ago as they prepare to take it again.

Mr. Carvalho told the board he’ll continue to push for “fair assessment and accountability” for local students and teachers.

Beyond the state’s flawed result, the district is publicizing the success of Miami-Dade students in other national tests, including the SATs, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and AP scores.

Here’s a sampling of how Miami-Dade students have done: SAT: The 16,000 Miami-Dade graduating seniors who took the test saw their mean scores increase in reading, mathematics and writing. While the mean scores for the nation and Florida declined. NAEP: No district scored significantly higher than Miami-Dade in reading across grade levels. And AP scores showed a huge jump in participation and a 9 percent increase in passing rate.

“Could all these good scores be wrong and the FSA right?” Mr. Carvalho rightfully asks.

State education officials have defended the anticipated FSA scores, saying an independent study of the bungled debut of the exams concluded the scores can still be fairly used to issue the A-through-F grades to schools.

Carvalho disagrees: “I believe proceeding without addressing these issues could have an incredibly powerful impact on the way our accountability system is viewed.”

Miami-Dade students and teachers are lucky to have Mr. Carvalho on their side on this dire issue. The state’s Department of Education should listen to him and all other Florida superintendents: It’s the only way to bring about a fair resolution for students and teachers.

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Monetizing high school athletes & principal autonomy

November 11, 2015 by


Predictions and reflections from Fund Education Now in this week’s Orlando Sentinel Central Florida 100. Enjoy.

Looking ahead:

The Florida House Education committee will repeat last year’s effort with a bill that transforms high school athletes into free agents able to transfer schools at will. It promises to limit the authority of the Florida High School Athletic Association, create unfair advantages for a few schools and encourages athlete recruitment using the excuse of academic choice. It paves the way for the creation of a mega sports charter school system that could monopolize, control and perhaps monetize the state’s best student athletes. The embedded message in this legislation goes against every good lesson students can learn by playing sports.

Last week:

The Principal Autonomy Pilot, HB 287, flew through committee. Three districts must select three D or F schools to participate in a three year turnaround program, giving principals autonomy over budget, staffing and resource decisions. Districts should look before they leap. This smacks of another unproven state experiment to peel schools away from the authority of elected school boards. Giving principal’s overriding power is a long-held dream of the Florida Legislature. What happens if a district strongly disagrees with the actions of a principal? During this pilot, these schools belong to the state. Isn’t this the opposite of local control?

Read this weeks entries here.


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Brevard superintendent axes 192 district-level exams

November 7, 2015 by


by: Jessica Saggio|Florida Today

November 3, 2015

Superintendent Desmond Blackburn has axed 192 mandatory district-level assessments for students in Brevard Public Schools while he reevaluates the examination system in the county.

The decision comes on the heels of an announcement from the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, which includes all 67 superintendents in Florida, that the group had “lost confidence” in the state’s testing and accountability system. The group denounced the Florida Standards Assessment and called for the State Board of Education to withhold issuing school grades this year and not use tests results as part of teacher evaluations. State officials denied the request, citing Florida law that requires school grades.

Since the September announcement, Blackburn has decided to “conduct an extensive study of our local assessment beliefs and strategies,” he said in a memo sent to principals across the county Tuesday. While doing this, he has called for dozens of required district-level tests to be tabled. The cancelled district-level tests range from first grade math to high school chemistry.

“The state is responsible for a lot of over assessment, but they’re not responsible for all of it. Some of it is done locally,” he said.

“We will do it smartly, we will do it collaboratively and we will work really, really hard not to exacerbate the over-assessment of children,” said Blackburn, in reference to the future of district testing.

Over the summer, teams of teachers developed an array of new end-of-course exams to be implemented this year, said associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction Cyndi Van Meter at the beginning of the school year. The district-wide exams were developed to replace final exams in various middle and high school classes. The cancelled exams include the tests these teams created.

However, Blackburn wrote in his memo that teachers have the option of using the tests if they would like and if they align with the school’s progress monitoring plan.

“Many of our teachers and district support staff responded to a nearly impossible task of creating many of these assessments,” he stated in the memo. “I am thankful and recognize the dedicated spirit of collaboration this took and I am doing to depend on the same dedicated spirit to build the system that we will all be proud to leave behind as our legacy.”

A handful of mandatory district-level exams will remain despite the vast recall. The kindergarten literacy survey, performance assessments for first and second graders, language arts final assessments for first and second grades, math performance assessments for kindergartners, ACT for 11th graders and English Four, honors exams and college prep exams for 12th grade will continue.

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Virtual Education Racket & Gov. Scott’s lousy BOE appointment

November 6, 2015 by


Very pleased to announce that Fund Education Now co-founder Kathleen Oropeza is participating in weekly reflections and predictions as part of the Orlando Sentinel’s Central Florida 100. These items are short and to the point. Enjoy.

Central Florida 100 – this week’s contribution:

Last week: When Gov. Rick Scott appointed personal friend and former one-term House member Tom Grady to the Board of Education, he fell short. Grady’s modest education experience involves sponsoring hostile policy bills such as the House companion of the controversial SB6, vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist. Grady also sponsored legislation that dramatically escalated tax dollars diverted to pay for private religious school vouchers. A politically appointed education commissioner and a governor-appointed board of education all but guarantees that the people will have no voice. Scott’s appointment of Grady just adds another uninformed ally for corporate “education reform.”

Looking ahead: Red flags should fly when differing sides release studies that conclude the same thing. The Stanford CREDO study, funded by the pro-charter Walton Family, concluded that 180 days of virtual school was as valuable as not going to school at all. The study issued by the National Education Policy Center strongly doubts the ability of full-time virtual to provide a high-quality, equitable public education. Both studies cite inconsistencies in quality, lack of oversight and high ratio of vendors profiting greatly from virtual education. Expect a growing conversation about why virtual classes are a Florida graduation requirement.

Read this week’s Central Florida 100 entries here.

From foster care to FSU: Orlando student beats odds

November 5, 2015 by


by: Leslie Postal|Orlando Sentinel

November 4, 2015

James Turner has the wiry build of someone who ran the 400-meter dash in high school. But these days, the business major at FSU is reciting his own poetry and hanging with an a cappella group, not the track team.

He likes watching Florida State football, is already tired of dining-hall food and talks animatedly about an English class discussion on whether fiction writers can accurately portray cultures other than their own. He doesn’t think so.

Turner, who graduated from Orlando’s Boone High School in May, is like a lot of first-year college students, with one exception: He has no family.

Turner spent almost his entire childhood in foster care, living in more than a dozen places after being taken from his parents when he was just 18 months old.

Nationally, foster-children education statistics are grim: About 70 percent leave high school without a diploma, 10 percent attend college, and only 3 percent earn a college degree by age 25.

Low expectations, Turner said, fueled his desire to be something more. “It’s kind of cliché, but I wanted to prove them wrong.”

Now he hopes an FSU business degree will help him reach a bigger ambition: “Become the change to help the foster world.”

That world still intrudes, even on FSU’s tree-lined campus. Though he has a cadre of people eager to help him navigate college life, Turner, 19, doesn’t have a place to return during the holidays. Now that he’s in college, he no longer has a spot in the Orlando group home where he spent the past two years.

“There’s no safety net when you’re a foster kid,” said Betsey Bell, executive director of the Foundation for Foster Children, an Orlando nonprofit that helps foster children and those exiting the system.

The foundation still counts Turner as a client, and Bell and other staff who’ve gotten to know him continue to help out. They’re working to make sure he has a place to go when FSU closes its dorms for breaks — he has several invitations for both Thanksgiving and Christmas — and they’re still offering advice to the teenager who gave a funny and poignant speech at their fundraising event in May.

“He wants to change foster care, run DCF, change the world,” Bell said. “And he just might.”

Sitting by a fountain not far from his dorm recently, Turner recited a poem he’d written describing the life he knew in care. He was to perform it this week at a campus pageant and talent show.

“Judge us by what we are, not what caused it,” he wrote.

He has several ideas for foster-care reforms, from changing laws to creating a traveling team of mentors who would visit group homes to provide encouragement to kids who too often feel like victims.

Turner said he doesn’t know precisely why he was removed from his parents’ care. He requested his foster-care file and found most of the entries had been blacked out. He recently met his mother but hasn’t seen his father.

When he was 8, a foster family wanted to adopt him, he said, but the family was moving back to its native Jamaica, and that scared him. He told his caseworker he didn’t want to go. In another foster family, he was smacked and punched, and in yet another mostly ignored.

At 12, he entered a group home, and he spent the rest of his childhood in such facilities in Brevard and Orange counties. Some staff members were cruel, belittling the children in their care, he said.

He became a leader wherever he was placed, the teenager other boys admired and turned to for help, the one who spoke up to staff.

“He was always the big brother,” Bell said.

As often happens, residential moves meant switching schools, then lost class time and a struggle to catch up. He had to repeat sixth grade.

By ninth grade, he was living in a “bottom-of-the-barrel place” where most of the other boys seemed to already have probation officers. He remembers thinking, “This is a hole. I can’t be here.”

He requested a move, which was granted, and then enrolled at Boone for his junior year. He ran track and earned all A’s that year.

At the start of his senior year, he visited Boone’s college counselor and told her he wanted to apply to FSU. Turner knew nothing about applying to colleges, and no one at the group home had any advice to give — nor thought FSU was a realistic place for him.

Boone’s counselor, Weeze Cullen, knew the young man who returned to her office again and again for advice didn’t fit typical foster-kid statistics.

“James was so unique. He impressed everybody,” she said.

She steered him to FSU’s Center for Retention and Enhancement, which is set up to admit and then help students who are the first in their family to attend college and who face economic and social hardships, including time in foster care.

Cullen helped him with his application, and she and others at Boone celebrated when he was accepted, his college costs largely covered. The state pays tuition and fees for those who’ve been in foster care, and he has an FSU scholarship as well. Bell and her co-workers celebrated, too. And they all worked to make sure he had luggage, a ride to Tallahassee and whatever else he needed.

He started college in CARE’s summer-transition program. The move to Tallahassee didn’t make him nervous — he was used to moving — but he found college “rough” at first, as he worried about keeping up with classes and fitting in, the responsibility of it all.

But his grades were good during the summer, and he liked that the program provided an easy way to meet others who had faced similar challenges.

“We all lived through crap,” he said.

He thinks about foster care a lot, but not always with regret because it made him who he is.

“I think,” he said, “I’m a pretty strong person.”

Read the article & watch the video here.



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Hillsborough schools to shelve Gates-funded system that cost millions to develop

October 30, 2015 by


by: Marlene Sokol|Tampa Bay Times

October 29, 2015

After six years of effort, high hopes and more than $180 million spent, the Hillsborough County school system is unraveling the teacher evaluation system it developed with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The news came in an email this week from superintendent Jeff Eakins to more than 260 “peer evaluators” and mentors who form the core of the system.

It also arrived as the once-cordial relationship between the district and its teachers union imploded Thursday. The two sides walked away from each other in anger as talks over a salary agreement for the current school year broke down.

Eakins announced in his email he has formed a committee to transition away from the once-touted Gates program, and said a number of employee groups would be on the panel.

Unlike the complex system of evaluations and teacher encouragement that cost more than $100 million to develop and would have cost an estimated $52 million a year to sustain, Hillsborough will likely move to a structure that has the strongest teachers helping others at their schools.

Eakins said he envisions a new program featuring less judgemental “non-evaluative feedback” from colleagues and more “job-embedded professional development,” which is training undertaken in the classroom during the teacher work day rather than in special sessions requiring time away from school. He said in his letter that these elements were supported by “the latest research.”

That’s a radical departure from the classroom observations carried out by full-time evaluators who rated the teachers according to a rubric, or scorecard. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, and his wife Melinda funded the project and others in U.S. cities through their philanthropic organization.

They hoped the system would create a hierarchy of teachers who could be paid based on their skills. Struggling teachers would be given assistance or, in the worst cases, fired or counseled out of the profession.

The foundation was expected to contribute $100 million through 2016, but instead paid $80 million. It is unclear to what extent the organization will continue to be involved in Hillsborough or whether it will forward any more money to the district.

The school district, meanwhile, has spent well beyond the $100 million it pledged, although some of the money was for related projects including a principal training program.

READ MORE: How Hillsborough County’s Gates grant became a budget buster

Among the selling points Hillsborough made back in 2009 when securing the Gates foundation’s support: a close working relationship between district officials and the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association. District leaders praised and promoted the union at public gatherings, and assured teachers that members were equal partners in designing the system.

The Gateses hoped the newly developed systems in Hillsborough and elsewhere would result in all students — especially those with the highest needs — getting quality teachers.

But in a report published Sunday, the Tampa Bay Times showed the project fell short of many of its goals and cost more to sustain than the district could afford.

Lower-income schools continue to hire the newest and least qualified teachers. Test scores are still measurably lower for poor and minority students. And Hillsborough’s graduation rate now lags behind other large counties in Florida.

As it rolled out the Gates-funded system, the district agreed to a new pay plan for teachers that added $65 million a year to payroll costs. That amount does not include more than $12 million in performance bonuses, which are now required by state law.

Despite those costs, which were revealed during the summer, the teachers union entered this year’s negotiations with hopes of getting raises for teachers and classroom aides, who earn as little as $9.12 an hour.

Negotiations were suspended as district officials grappled with news that they were spending down too much of their reserves.

When talks finally resumed, the union asked for support workers’ hourly wages to increase in three phases until they started at $10.77. For teachers, the union wanted everyone to advance a pay year and get an additional $1,000. For the highest-paid employees, the union asked for a 2 percent bonus.

Both sides described the proposal as a first step.

But Thursday’s bargaining session was over almost as soon as it began. Mark West, the district’s employee relations manager, said because of the district’s budget difficulties, he would have little to offer the support employees.

“I’m glad you’re comfortable leaving your employees living in poverty,” union executive director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins shot back.

“I’m not saying I’m comfortable,” West said.

Not long after, Baxter-Jenkins told the district’s team, “You might as well just go.”

While West spoke of the district’s financial difficulties, Eakins did not mention money in his email about the Gates program.

Instead, he cited new research that suggests it is better for teachers to help one another than to mark each other down on scorecards.

“By bridging current research with the knowledge gained from the last six years, we will build an even stronger support model for our students and teachers,” he wrote.

“Specifically, this transition will enable highly effective teachers to sharpen their teaching skills as they work directly with students every day. … Both teachers and students will benefit from the collegial relationships that develop over time.”

Eakins did not mention the Gates situation, or the Times report, in a four-hour televised School Board meeting Tuesday. But in his email, he said “newspaper articles, social media and the general buzz” around the Gates grant had moved him to address the peer evaluators.

He drew on his own years as an elementary school teacher to praise those who took part in the experiment.

“My peers challenged me to reflect on my practice and provided indispensable guidance starting on my very first day in the classroom and continuing throughout my teaching career,” he wrote.

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