Ex-deputy cleared of all charges in Parkland school shooting, court outlaws affirmative action for college admissions, new testing results and more

Test scores from new model: First-round results from the new standardized Florida Assessment of Student Thinking (FAST) exams are in. Fifty percent of students in grades 3-10 scored at grade-level or above in English language arts, and 56 percent of those in grades 3-8 performed at grade-level or above in math. Before this year, students were tested near the end of the school year and results were released in the summer. With FAST, tests are given three times a year, with teachers getting results in time to work with students on areas that need improvement. State officials said the results were a “success,” but the percentages of students who scored at grade levels were about the same as last year. “The significant gains made by our students this school year prove that progress monitoring is a success,” said Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz Jr. “Florida’s teachers were provided immediate feedback following each FAST administration and used that feedback to guide future instruction.” Leaders from some districts agreed. The new program made a “meaningful difference” in Miami-Dade, said Superintendent Jose Dotres. “Teachers were able to make adjustments to instruction throughout the year, based on student progress, driving positive outcomes. This new assessment approach will benefit students for generations to come.” News Service of Florida. Politico Florida. Tampa Bay Times. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. WCJB. The Capitolist. Capitol Soup. Florida Department of Education. Volusia County School District.

Around the state: Jurors acquitted the Broward school resource officer who took cover instead of trying to confront the gunman who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, metal detectors are installed in four Palm Beach County high schools, Broward school board members will consider a proposal to close some schools, a meeting to approve the new Broward superintendent’s contract was canceled after only three of the nine board members showed up, Polk teachers will get a raise after school board members approve the district’s $2.4 billion budget, St. Johns school board members will consider asking voters to approve a property tax increase so teachers can be paid more, and Catholic schools in southwest Florida are seeing an increase in interest that they attribute to the state’s new law offering scholarships to all students. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Broward: Scot Peterson, the school resource officer who took cover instead of trying to confront a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, was acquitted Thursday of child neglect, culpable negligence and perjury. Seventeen students and employees died and 17 others were wounded that day by Nikolas Cruz. Prosecutors said Peterson’s inaction cost several people their lives, but his attorneys contended he took cover because the shots could have been coming from outside the building. “I got my life back after 4½ years,” Peterson said outside the courtroom. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster for so long.” Sun-Sentinel. WPLG. WLRN. WTVJ. Associated Press. Politico Florida. New York Times. Reuters. K-12 Dive. School board members may consider a proposal to close schools in an effort to “right-size” the district and save money. Board member Allen Zeman supports closing 35 schools over four years, beginning in the 2024-2025 school year. Each closed school could save the district as much as $2 million, he said. “We have more facilities than we have student load,” he said. Other board members agreed it was a discussion worth having. Sun-Sentinel. A school board meeting scheduled Thursday to approve the contract of newly named superintendent Peter Licata was canceled when only three board members showed up. Zeman, Sarah Leonardi and Jeff Holness were in attendance, while chair Lori Alhadeff, vice chair Debbi Hixon and Nora Rupert connected by phone since all are out of the country. However, Torey Alston, Brenda Fam and Daniel Foganholi were unexpected no-shows. Since the physical presence of five members is required for a quorum, the meeting was canceled. Sun-Sentinel. WTVJ. WLRN. Miami Herald.

Palm Beach: Metal detectors are now being tested throughout the summer at John I. Leonard High School in Greenacres, Seminole Ridge High in Loxahatchee, Palm Beach Lakes High in West Palm Beach and Palm Beach Gardens High. The official pilot program begins when schools reopen Aug. 10. “We’re looking for guns, that’s our priority,” said Sarah Mooney, the district’s chief of police. Palm Beach Post. Sun-Sentinel. A former keyboarding teacher at Christa McAuliffe Middle School in Boynton Beach has surrendered his teaching license rather than fight the Education Practices Commission’s decision to discipline him. Russell Vacherlon, 64, was charged in 2019 with misdemeanor battery for inappropriately touching three 11-year-old girls in class, and later resigned as part of a pretrial intervention agreement. Sun-Sentinel.

Polk: The school district has a tentative budget of $2.4 billion for the 2023-2024 fiscal year, and once it’s approved teachers will get a boost in pay. How much won’t be known until then, but district officials said they will continue to improve starting teacher pay and pay for longtime educators. Polk ranks 24th in the state in median teacher pay, at $47,781. The state average is $48,432. The district has about 7,000 teachers, and more than 10 percent of them were new hires. Lakeland Now.

Brevard: Murals painted 50 years by students at the former Cocoa High School, now Rockledge High, have been uncovered by construction workers who are renovating the school cafeteria. “I was just floored when I saw them because it was like finding a time capsule. There were pictures of football players, books, art and there was surfing,” said media specialist Leslie Shinault. “The paint was in remarkable condition.” The murals are on concrete and too big to be cut out, so workers are putting up new drywall in front of the original structure, leaving the paintings untouched. WKMG.

St. Johns: County residents may be asked next year to approve a property tax hike so the school district can increase teacher and bus driver pay, enhance safety and security, curriculum programs and more. Already on the ballot in 2024 is the renewal of an extra half-cent sales tax that is used to build new schools and improve security. Board member Beverly Slough said the district is losing teachers to surrounding counties such as Duval, Clay and Flagler because they pay more. WJXT.

Marion: A Legacy Elementary School teacher who is accused of bullying and humiliating students will not have her contract renewed, according to district officials. An investigation into the actions of Dawn White, a 5th-grade teacher, began after the parents of one of her students said their 10-year-old committed suicide after being mocked by White. WCJB.

Escambia: The district’s first new school since 2018 opens this fall. Pleasant Grove Elementary is expected to enroll about 500 students who will benefit from the STEM lab, music room, performance stage, media center and green room. The new school will also relieve overcrowding at the surrounding Blue Angel and Hellen Caro elementaries. Pensacola News Journal.

Hernando: School board members have approved a school district partnership with BloomBoard to help paraprofessionals with associate’s degrees earn bachelor’s degrees and become teachers in two or three years while working for the district, at the district’s expense. Superintendent John Stratton called the program, which is named Learn It U and includes online and on-the-job learning, “crucial in tackling the pressing issue of a nationwide teacher shortage within our community.” Hernando County School District.

Charlotte: Some private schools are seeing an increase in applications and say it’s likely tied to the state’s new universal school vouchers law. The law allows any K-12 student, regardless of income, to apply for a scholarship from the state worth about $8,000. It can be used to attend a private school, educational expenses for home-schooled children, and more. “We have seen an increase in interest … now that every family is eligible,” said Rev. John Belmonte, superintendent of Catholic Education Diocese of Venice that includes 15 schools in six Southwest Florida counties. Charlotte Sun.

Voucher budget questions: School districts around the state are trying to put together budgets without knowing the full effect the universal school choice vouchers will have on their bottom lines. Lawmakers have set aside an extra $430 million in case their estimates of the number of students applying for vouchers is inaccurate. “Nobody knows exactly what that (participation) number is going to be,” Kevin Smith, the Pinellas district’s chief finance officer, told school board members this week.”The big unknown is the Family Empowerment Scholarships.” Tampa Bay Times.

Teachers’ union dues: An anti-union group out of Washington state has been distributing fliers in Florida urging teachers not to rejoin their unions, even as the unions are mustering drives to maintain membership under new, restrictive laws that go into effect Saturday. Payroll deduction of union dues for teachers and most other public unions ends under the new laws, and unions now must enroll 60 percent of the eligible membership to retain certification. Fliers from the Freedom Foundation urge teachers, “Don’t let the union mislead you,” while teachers unions are urging members to sign up for an independent online payment system and are recruiting more teachers to join in an “I’m sticking with my union” campaign. Orlando Sentinel.

Around the nation: In a 6-3 vote, the court struck down race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina, ruling that race cannot be a factor in diversifying enrollment. The vote was along ideological lines, with the conservative majority deciding that the two schools discriminated against white and Asian American applicants by using admissions policies that benefited underrepresented students. Associated Press. Politico. K-12 Dive. The 74. Education Week. Chalkbeat. Florida is unlikely to be affected by the ruling, since it’s one of nine states that had already prohibited race consideration for college admissions. USA Today. Tampa Bay Times.

Opinions on schools: It was highly unlikely that Scot Peterson could have taken down Nikolas Cruz, before the former-student-turned-gunman would kill 17 people and injure 17 more at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. The thing is, he didn’t even try. Miami Herald. A disturbing number of teachers union representatives and advocacy groups see the pandemic’s aftermath as an opportunity for social and educational re-engineering. In other words, terms like “learning loss” and “merit” are now considered old-fashioned at best and something far more sinister at worst. But if union representatives want an honest conversation about reform, they have to stop trying to put lipstick on a pig. School closures were incredibly harmful, particularly for disadvantaged students who needed in-person education the most. Garion Frankel, reimaginED.

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BY NextSteps staff