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House bill expands K-12 scholarships, penalties for safety noncompliance, educators honored and more

Expanding scholarships: Four state K-12 scholarship programs would be expanded under a bill introduced and approved Thursday in the House Education Committee. The most substantive changes are proposed for the Family Empowerment Scholarship, which was launched last year and quickly filled its available 18,000 positions. The number of slots would grow to 28,000 students, and they could be opened to families with a higher income than the current threshold if 5 percent of the scholarships go unfilled. Being eliminated is a requirement that students must be 1st- or 2nd-graders in a public school to be eligible, and audits of organizations that administer the scholarships would be done every three years instead of annually. “There is a demand for these programs because they are working, and they are our helping families,” said House Education Committee chair Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora. Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer several state scholarship programs. Politico Florida. News Service of Florida. Tampa Bay Times. WFSU. redefinED. Florida Politics. The chair of the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, said he won’t take any steps to deny state scholarship money to private schools that reject LGBTQ students. Orlando Sentinel. Florida Politics.

Security in schools: The Florida House’s school safety bill, approved Thursday by the education committee, has incorporated many of the recommendations of the statewide grand jury that investigated the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. It differs from the Senate version, though, in calling for withholding pay from superintendents in districts that are out of compliance with state regulations. That provision “causes me some angst,” said Joy Frank, general counsel of the Florida Association of School Superintendents. “This bill basically sharpens our pencil,” said Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto. “It provides a little bit better method for the districts and the individuals involved to administer school safety.” Politico Florida. WFTS. WFSU.

Mental health funding: School districts would receive an extra $25 million this year to provide mental health services to students under budget proposals coming out of both the Florida Senate and House. It’s the third year in a row an increase has been requested to help districts hire more counselors, psychologists and therapists. “More services are being provided, but we still have deserts — areas where mental health services are lacking — both in our urban areas and particularly are rural areas,” said Joy Frank of the superintendents organization. Sun Sentinel. News Service of Florida. Florida Politics.

Homeless students: The number of homeless students in Florida in the 2017-2018 school year was 95,167, an increase of 27 percent in one year,  according to a report from the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program. That jump was more than twice the 11 percent increase in the United States. Nationally, the number of homeless students rose to 1,508,265, an all-time high. Education Dive.

Educators honored: Vanessa Valle, an English teacher who is also the lead instructor for the Hialeah Gardens Senior High School law academy and a literacy coach, has been named the Miami-Dade County School District’s teacher of the year. Kalyn Lee, who teaches English at Miami Carol City Senior High, was named rookie teacher of the year. Miami Herald. WPLG. WSVN. Kirk Tapley, an advanced world history teacher at Howard Bishop Middle School in Gainesville, has been named the Alachua County School District’s teacher of the year. Gainesville Sun. The finalists for the Escambia County School District teacher of the year award are: Kadee Barnett, a 1st-grade teacher at Beulah Elementary School; Jacqueline Chabot, 3rd-grade teacher at Montclair Elementary; Maureen Harden, a 6th-grade math teacher at Bailey Middle; Cheyenna Novotny, who teaches chemistry and other science subjects at West Florida High School of Advanced Technology; and Jodi Woods, a 6th-grade reading teacher at Ransom Middle. The winner will be announced tonight. WEAR.

Disappearing items: About 100 pieces of equipment worth $146,000 are missing from Coconut Creek and Northeast high schools in Broward County, according to school district auditors. Among the items missing are a golf cart, computers, musical instruments, a clothes dryer and library shelves. Almost $110,000 worth of items are missing from Coconut Creek High. “We will work to ensure that this school develops, implements and monitors sounds business practices that should prevent further occurrences of this nature,” said Valerie Wanza, an administrator who supervises principals. Sun Sentinel.

Superintendent search: A nationwide search will be conducted this spring to find a new superintendent for the Marion County School District. The school board has approved the hiring of a consultant to find candidates, with a deadline of March 22 set for applications. Interviews would be held April 8 and 15, with a decision by the end of that month and the new superintendent starting by June 30. A salary of $210,000 has been set. Marion voters agreed in 2018 to switch from electing superintendents to appointing them. Current Superintendent Heidi Maier has told the board that she intends to remain with the district through the end of her term in mid-November. Ocala Star-Banner.

After-school problems: The Miami-Dade County School District has filed a plan to correct a lapse that allowed two private after-school programs to use district facilities without the proper clearance for more than a decade. But no disciplinary action is mentioned in the plan, and members of the district’s ethics committee were unhappy that no one from the superintendent’s office was at Thursday’s meeting to answer questions about that omission. Miami Herald.

Turnaround school: Just a year after the St. Augustine Public Montessori School in St. Johns County nearly lost its charter and closed because it was drowning in debt, it’s recovered and is back in the black. In December 2018, the school had a projected debt of $191,000. But district officials put together a turnaround plan that included cutting staff, reducing rent and collecting more donations. By December 2019, “they’re just shy of $31,000 in the black and they’ve got about $72,000 fund balance,” said Michael Degutis, the district’s chief financial officer. St. Augustine Record.

Education podcasts: Amanda Marrero, Shelly Nonnenberg and Emily Null, all seniors at Krinn Technical High School in Pasco County, talk about their research project that is going to the International Space Station, and the importance of science education. Gradebook.

Contagious concerns: New guidelines that were published early Thursday about the incubation period for the coronavirus convinced officials of the Benjamin School to invite 30 students and three teachers to return to school earlier than expected. The contingent was at the Yale Model United Nations event last weekend and came into contact with a Chinese students who showed symptoms of the illness. When they returned, they were told to stay home from school until test results were finished. Palm Beach Post. Sun Sentinel. WPTV. Citrus County school officials say students and staff at Crystal River Primary School may have been exposed to hepatitis A, a contagious infection of the liver. District officials warned parents in advance of getting confirmation from the Florida Health Department. Citrus County Chronicle.

District’s dress code: The relaxed school dress code adopted by the Bay County School District after Hurricane Michael hit the area in 2018 will be extended another year, according to district officials. “We realize a lot of our families still continue to deal with hardships both financially and the hecticness of everyday life,” said Kara Mulkusky, director of student services. “We want to make sure families feel they have options and flexibility when it comes to the students and what they’re wearing to school.” Panama City News Herald.

School choice period: School choice enrollment in the Sarasota County School District begins Monday and continues through Feb. 28. Seats in elementary schools are limited, but all middle and high schools are available through open enrollment. Assignments will be determined by lottery. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Retaliation alleged: A Palm Beach County School District investigator who is himself under investigation said he’s being targeted because he objected to the way he was ordered to investigate a principal who said he couldn’t say if the Holocaust was factual. Robert Pinkos said he was ordered to focus his investigation into Spanish River High School principal William Latson on his actions in the days after the comments were disclosed, and not on the comments or how district officials handled them. Palm Beach Post.

Employees and the law: A former Umatilla High School teacher has been arrested and charged with the sexual battery of a student. Authorities said William Rutledge, 37, began a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old student in May 2019 and ended it in December. Investigators said the girl has severe mental health issues that Rutledge took advantage of. WFTV. The former principal at Cottondale High School in Jackson County has turned himself in to authorities over allegations of misconduct. Ken Granger resigned in December. The nature of the charges have not been disclosed. WMBB.

Opinions on schools: The Legislature has already driven teachers out of the profession and driven K-12 students out of their minds with high-stakes testing mandates. Now lawmakers are considering doing the same for even younger students and their teachers. Nathan Crabbe, Gainesville Sun. We shouldn’t care where students are educated if it’s a high-quality education that prepares them for success in school and in life. Gary Chartrand, Florida Politics. It is time for Florida to take another step in civics instruction by complementing the increased focus on classroom instruction with community-based, experiential learning about public procedures, the daily work of government, and the roles of private, nonprofit organizations. Ben Diamond and Andy McLeod, Tampa Bay Times. Education’s status quo mentality is antithetical to education equity. Keith Jacobs, redefinED.

Student enrichment: As part of a group civics project, middle school students at the Everglades K-8 Center in Westchester created a magazine to persuade legislators to enact laws that can help prevent mass shootings. WLRN. A group of 14 boys at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg meet twice a week in a small school bathroom to perform the music they create. Their videos have been posted on YouTube, and have drawn more than 1.2 million views. Tampa Bay Times. WFLA. WFTV. Students at Riverside Elementary School in Crestview are now taking computer coding classes to help them learn to think logically and creatively. Northwest Florida Daily News.

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BY NextSteps staff