ST. PETERSBURG — With help from the state, Pinellas County’s exceptional student education department could go from one of the poorest performers in the state to a model for developing new, effective teachers.
Pinellas will become the first district to train teachers in a summer school atmosphere with money from the Florida Department of Education’s Race to the Top grant.
Pinellas was selected because of its success with the recently-implemented Summer Bridge program for students in danger of falling behind in school. With the grant, Pinellas will work with The New Teacher Project to train 50 to 60 new exceptional student education (ESE) teachers — an area where the district has struggled to retain the “best and brightest,” said Lisa Grant, ESE executive director.
“We know we lose a significant portion of teachers in their initial years, and beginning teachers don’t have the same impact in their first year as they do after they’ve gotten more experience,” Grant said. “Now they get that training before they even begin. A teacher’s most important year is their first year, and because they’re in front of students that are learning there is no warm-up lap.”
Starting this summer, the new teachers will get four weeks of one-on-one professional development training from special and general education teachers who have demonstrated success in the classroom.
Teachers training in the program will be new to the school district or hired during this school year. They will begin with a week-long training seminar focused on four specific skills: delivering lessons, maintaining high academic expectations, maintaining high behavioral expectations and maximizing instructional time.
The teachers then will be introduced into Summer Bridge classrooms to work with ESE students and to receive real-time feedback from their coaches. The feedback continues through classroom observations during the first couple months of school, Grant said.
“This won’t be huge for us money-wise, but it will be huge in how we do business and would shore-up some of the skills so teachers feel more comfortable and confident before they come into the classroom,” Grego said.
The district is recruiting coaches and trainers, as well as the new ESE teachers, to work side-by-side in the program from June 30 to July 25. The New Teacher Project, a national nonprofit group that has worked in 24 school districts across the nation, could hire as many as 13 coaches and eight trainers and will pay their salaries, Grant said. The new teachers will be compensated for the “paid internship,” Grego said.
“The good news is we’ve been able to design this thing and we aren’t just a recipient of it,” Grego said. “We also have the opportunity to build some trainers for our ESE staff as we further our process of improving and expanding our training for all our teachers.”
Retention of ESE teachers, as well as proper training, is paramount, Grego said. About 220 ESE associates who assist teachers in the classroom stand to be displaced next school year as the district hopes to hire more certified teachers.
Only 21 percent of about 12,900 students in Pinellas exceptional student education programs met the proficiency score of 3 or higher in reading on last year’s FCAT, and only 22 percent met the standard in math, down from 27 percent on both tests in 2011-12. The Florida Department of Education’s goal for special education programs is for 34 percent to score a 3 or higher in reading and 37 percent in math. The state average is about 35 percent in reading and 40 percent in math.
The graduation rate for Pinellas students with disabilities was about 40 percent last year, 10 percent below the state average and in the bottom 10 statewide.
“We need our strongest teachers in front of our most struggling students,” Grant said.