Florida now 2nd in AP pass rate, budget for Schools of Hope, district wifi project, graduations and more

Florida 2nd in AP passing: Florida ranked second in the country in the percentage of graduating high school seniors who passed college-level Advanced Placement exams in 2020, according to a new report from the College Board. Florida’s percentage rate of 34.2 percent was nearly 10 percentage points above the national average of 24.4 percent and only trailed Connecticut by 0.3 percentage points. Florida passed Massachusetts to move up a spot. The state improved despite having the lowest per-pupil spending of any state finishing in the top 10, and the highest rate of students eligible for free- or reduced-price school meals. “This is fantastic news,” said Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran. “Our 2020 graduates’ outstanding performance on AP exams shows that Florida is well on the way to becoming the No. 1 state in the nation for education.” WTXL. redefinED. Florida Department of Education.

In the Legislature: Even as it plans an expansion, the state’s Schools of Hope program is facing a cut in funding of 20 percent, with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposed budget shaving $50 million from the program. “The governor supports the continuation of the Schools of Hope program and believes the over $200 million in carry-forward funds are sufficient to support current and impending projects,” said DeSantis’ press secretary Cody McCloud. Florida has provided about $320 million to the program, which tries to convince high-performing charter school companies to open in areas with persistently struggling schools. The money provides loans to help companies build campuses and to pay for startup expenses, and the state rules make it difficult for local school boards to reject applications. Politico Florida. Among the six hottest issues before the Legislature when its session begins Tuesday are education spending and the bill that streamlines the state’s K-12 scholarship programs and creates education savings accounts for students. The Capitolist.

Around the state: The Palm Beach County School District is partnering with county and local governments to provide high-speed Internet service to thousands of students who don’t have access, three Miami-Dade school workers have died in the past two weeks of COVID-19, three Hillsborough County School Board members hold their own meeting to urge district officials to provide more information and transparency, Duval school officials report an increase in the number of D and F grades on student report cards, in-person graduations are announced for Pasco schools and two universities, and kindergarten readiness in the state improved slightly in 2020. Here are details about those stories and other developments from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade, Broward: The school district has lost three employees to COVID-19 in the past two weeks, according to Phyllis Leflore, president of the union that represents bus drivers, food service, security, maintenance and custodial employees. The latest was Larry Williams, a maintenance worker who died last weekend, a week after being hospitalized. WPLG. School officials in Miami-Dade said they are exploring ways to hold more traditional high school graduation ceremonies this spring, while Broward officials will hold modified in-person ceremonies and also keep drive-in graduations. Miami Herald. Roger Pollard, a teacher and football coach at Coral Gables Senior High School, has been missing since Wednesday, and police are asking the public for help in finding him. Miami Herald. WPLG. WFOR. A private school teacher has been fired after being accused of sending nude photos of herself to former students. Alexandra Handwerger, 48, who taught English at the Hebrew Academy in Miami Beach, has not been criminally charged and denies the accusations. School officials said the photos were sent to several 18-year-old former students now studying in Israel. WSVN. WTVJ. WPLG.

Hillsborough: Three members of the school board held an unusual meeting Thursday to urge district officials to provide more information to them and be more open about their operations to the public. Nadia Combs and Jessica Vaughn called the meeting, saying they were frustrated by a lack of time devoted to discussing issues at regularly scheduled meetings. They were joined by Karen Perez. They discussed the district’s grim financial outlook, discipline statistics, charter schools and more. “We are not trying to separate or be divisive or anything like that,” Combs said, adding that “sometimes I feel like I’m on an island by myself.” Tampa Bay Times.

Orange: School board members have approved spending $11.5 million to buy a 61-acre property in south Orlando as a location for a new high school. It would open in 2025, or a year earlier if possible, relieve overcrowding at Lake Nona High School and provide a home for residents of new developments being built in the area. It would be the 23rd public high school in the county. Orange has 20 high schools now, with Horizon High School and Lake Buena Vista High School opening in August. Orlando Sentinel.

Palm Beach: The school district is partnering with county and local governments to provide high-speed Internet service to thousands of students who don’t have reliable access. The WiFi Mesh Network is being built in a 50-square-mile area that is now underserved. Fiber optic cables are being connected to radios, which are being placed on power poles and will broadcast a signal. Families will be given an extender to capture the signal and rebroadcast it throughout the home. The projected will be paid with federal coronavirus relief aid, and could be available as early as March 8. WPTV. Teachers union president Justin Katz said he’s happy that teachers over 50 will soon be eligible to get a coronavirus vaccination. “The sooner we can get them vaccinated, the better we will feel,” he said. WPTV.

Duval: The number D and F grades on student report cards has jumped significantly in the school district. In 2019, about 26 percent of the grades for students in middle and high schools were D or F. In the first quarter of the 2020-2021 school year, the percentage was 41 percent. “It doesn’t surprise me because of what we’re going through,” said Superintendent Diana Greene. WJAX. Student-led protests helped force the school district to change a mental health awareness program and decide to integrate more black history into the curriculum. Leaders of those protests describe how they came about. Florida Times-Union. School bus drivers say they should be in the mix for the next round of coronavirus vaccinations. WJXT.

Polk: The number of children under the age of 18 being involuntarily committed under the Baker Act has grown in the past month in the central Florida region, said Alice Nuttall, Lakeland Regional Health’s assistant vice president of behavioral health services. She believes some of the upswing has been triggered by more students switching from remote learning to in-person instruction, and it’s a trend that has been noted in Polk, Hillsborough, Pinellas and Miami-Dade counties. “I really believe it’s multi-factoral, and we’re going to have to work on this,” she said. “It’s a top concern.” Lakeland Ledger.

Pasco: In-person high school graduations will be held this spring in school stadiums between May 26 and June 5, district officials announced Thursday. The original plan was to hold ceremonies in the Yuengling Center at the University of South Florida, but it isn’t available in June. Each graduate will get four tickets, with two guests allowed on the field with the student and the other two in the bleachers. “We know how important it is to the graduates to walk across the stage and receive their diploma in person. And we know how important it is to have family there to celebrate this once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Superintendent Kurt Browning. “This plan makes that possible while keeping everyone safe.” Bay News 9. Tampa Bay Times. WFLA.

Osceola: School board member Jon Arguello talks about his support for education choice, which centers around the issue of equity for underprivileged students. “Nobody should be able to tell a parent they can’t be the primary decider of where they kids go to school,” he said. “That’s a winning thing. There’s really no downside to school choice. It’s all an upside.” redefinED.

Manatee: School leaders said they are finally starting to see the results from the troubled business software system that became functional years later than expected and at more than twice the scheduled cost. The board approved the project in 2016, with an expected cost of $10 million. The total spent is now about $29 million, and the annual cost is expected to be about $1.9 million. “It has been an undertaking to get us where we are today, but I do believe what you’ll find is there are definitely improvements,” said Superintendent Cynthia Saunders. Administrators will present the school board an update on the system today. Bradenton Herald. Manatee County School Board member Scott Hopes has applied for the job of interim county administrator. Hopes touted his background in both the public and private sectors, and said he would do the job for free. If he’s chosen, Hopes said he would resign from the school board within 60 days. The county administrator’s job would be for a year, until commissioners can find a permanent replacement for Cheri Coryea, who resigned this week. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Collier: The Estero Village Council has approved a plan that will change the road design on River Ranch Road leading to Estero High School, including the addition of longer left-turn lanes, a roundabout to help ease traffic backups, and sidewalks. Naples Daily News.

Sarasota: A dual-language charter school has signed a lease with Temple Beth Sholom for space and is expected to open this fall. Students at the Dreamers Academy will take classes in both English and Spanish. The school will open with 108 spots for kindergarten students and 108 1st-graders, and one class of 18 students in grades 2-5. School board members approved the charter application in 2018, but school officials couldn’t find a facility and then were delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Marion: The school district will participate in a national study, conducted by the University of Florida’s Lastinger Center for Learning, that examines student learning during the coronavirus pandemic. “The national COVID-19 Education Deep Dive Longitudinal Study collects baseline data from districts across the country including up to 10 in Florida, particularly focusing on those serving black, Latino, and low-income student populations higher than the state average,” the school district announced. “The distance-learning study considers students and how they learn, be it in person, online, or a hybrid of both. The core goal is to better understand the unique impacts and challenges these students face as a result of distance learning.” WCJB.

Escambia: Consequences for students from standardized testing is a worry for local families and educators in a year that toggled between remote and in-person learning because of the coronavirus pandemic, with interruptions for quarantining. There is a movement to waive those consequences, but Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran has said he’d make that decision after seeing the scores. Pensacola News Journal.

Clay: Students at Orange Park Junior High are fighting the COVID-19 learning slide by voluntarily attending Saturday classes for six weeks. More than 100 students signed up for the extra classroom time, and about 85 have attended. Clay Today.

Alachua: After succeeding in a campaign to change the name of an Alachua County elementary school named after a Confederate general, civil rights activists are turning their attention to several others. WUFT. The school district is expanding its free meal program for students 18 and under in after-school programs by adding free dinners and snacks at 19 sites around the county, starting Tuesday. WCJB.

Citrus: High school graduation rates are up, ACT and SAT test scores improved, diagnostic test scores dipped but then rose for elementary students, and school enrollment is down slightly, district officials reported in their annual “state of the district” presentation to the school board this week. Citrus County Chronicle.

Flagler: School board members have told county officials they won’t sell a 20-acre property that the county wants to use as a park or for conservation purposes. The school district has owned the land since 1984. It’s too small for a school, but district officials have rejected several proposals over the years. It was last appraised about three years ago for $335,000. Flagler Live.

Monroe: District officials will offer a “fifth quarter” of instruction this summer for struggling students, Superintendent Theresa Axford has announced. The first session runs from June 7 to July 2, and the second from July 6 to July 30. Florida Keys Weekly.

Colleges and universities: Florida State University will hold 11 in-person graduations over the weekends of April 17-18 and April 23-24, President John Thrasher announced Thursday. FSU is also working on graduation plans for the class of 2020, who had only virtual ceremonies, will resume in-person classes for the summer semester that begins May 10, and expects more normal operations next fall. The University of Florida also announced plans for 14 in-person graduation ceremonies between April 29 and May 3. News Service of Florida. Tallahassee Democrat. WFSU. WTXL. Politico Florida.

Kindergarten readiness: Kindergarten readiness is at 57 percent, according to the Florida Department of Education. That’s up from 53 percent from a year ago, though about 30 percent fewer students were tested because of the coronavirus pandemic. Florida Politics.

Opinions on schools: A claim by the Florida League of Women Voters that students who use Florida school choice scholarships return to public schools worse off academically isn’t supported by the available evidence. Ron Matus, redefinED. State legislation that would require parents to opt their children into receiving critical information about unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases would be a public health setback and a disservice to countless kids. Tampa Bay Times. Forcing students into college majors for which they are not prepared via the threat of terminating Bright Futures support for programs that do not “directly” lead to jobs, as S.B. 86 would do, is unlikely to be effective. And penalizing students for taking the high school courses that best prepare them to succeed in engineering and science majors in college seems completely crazy. Paul Cottle, Bridge to Tomorrow.