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Wednesday, Oct 01, 2014

Pinellas summer school program struggling to enroll students

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CLEARWATER -

In February, Pinellas County Schools officials unveiled big plans for a six-week summer program that would help academically struggling students, but only about 2,200 students had signed up when the enrollment period ended April 2.

The goal was to recruit 12,000 of the county’s most academically-needy students about 10 percent of the county’s total student population – but only about 2,200 students had signed up when the enrollment period ended April 2.

School district officials recently decided to reopen the enrollment process – starting Monday and running through May 3 in an effort to boost the Summer Bridge program’s numbers. High school students won’t be able to enroll until their end-of-course exam scores are released at the end of the school year.

The delay only shortens the time school administrators will have to answer important questions about the program namely, how many teachers will be needed and how much the program will cost.

Summer Bridge is meant to curb summer learning losses among low-income, minority and academically struggling students in kindergarten through 12th grade. It is scheduled to run from June 17 to July 24, four days a week, and students will receive a free lunch.

The curriculum focuses on reading, math and science. Teachers also will help students retake exams or finish any coursework needed for graduation.

Students qualify for the program based on test scores; so far, enrollment is still limited to students who are underperforming.

As of April 2, 1,581 elementary and 616 middle school students had enrolled. About 5,700 elementary school students were invited to participate.

The school district hopes 1,700 to 1,900 high-schoolers apply, and more invitations will go out in May after schools receive their third-graders’ reading scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which starts Monday, said Director of Elementary Education Kathleen Young-Parker.

School district officials say they still believe in the program, despite the initially tepid response. School Board members “absolutely support” the program and hope it will continue next year, School Board member Robin Wikle said.

“We need as much summer help as we can get,” she said.

A survey released this month by the Pinellas County Council of PTA’s and the Pinellas Education Foundation found that 69 percent of parents and school employees support the program. Of the 1,297 people surveyed, 858 were parents with children in Pinellas County public schools. Among the parents, 71 percent favor the program.

So, why haven’t parents been signing up their children?

Parents of targeted students were told about the program directly, and informational fliers went home with students, Young-Parker said.

The reason why may not have anything to do with the program itself.

“As a parent of school-aged children, we tend to wait ‘til the last minute, and many are still in the process of making their summer plans, whether it be vacations or child care,” Wikle said.

Regardless of why parents haven’t enrolled their children as quickly as expected, school officials say the numbers need to increase, and the sooner the better.

“I don’t think any of us thought it would be 12,000 immediately; it was really a long-range goal, but I definitely would like more than 2,000,” said School Board member Linda Lerner. “We do have to plan because we have to hire teachers and support staff, but I hope we’ll give it a little bit more time.”

About 700 teachers have applied for Summer Bridge positions, but none will be hired until the school district knows how many students will attend the program, Superintendent Michael Grego said. If the target enrollment number is met, 1,250 teaching positions may be available – compared to the 300 teachers usually hired for the summer.

The program is a boon to teachers, who often work extra jobs in the summer, said Bruce Proud, the executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. The late hiring date, though, presents some problems. Teachers were supposed to be hired last week.

With the enrollment period ending May 3, many teachers could find themselves turning down job offers while waiting for a position that might not become available, Proud said.

“They don’t want to loose an opportunity, if they’re not sure they’re going to be able to work in the Summer Bridge,” he said.

“There have been very limited opportunities to teach in the summer in the last few years.”

The elementary summer school program was meant to expand from five schools to 27, and all middle and high schools except three that will be under construction this summer will offer classes.

The budget, which will come out of state academic intervention funding, and the number of schools and resources actually needed is hard to determine without enrollment figures, Grego said. The school district has no cost estimate right now, school district spokeswoman Melanie Marquez-Parra said.

After a sparring match with the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, the school district agreed to pay teachers their regular hourly rates, Proud said. He said he expects to renegotiate salaries if the program is continued next year.

School district officials face a lot of work in coming weeks to pull off the Summer Bridge program but say they’ll make it work.

“We’ll be OK,” Wikle said. “I’m optimistic we’ll be able to do it.”


adawson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-9851

Twitter: @adawsonTBO

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