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No charges in Broward caps and gowns query, Miami-Dade project combines school and housing for staff, voucher funding, and more

Around the state: Prosecutors are declining to bring charges in an inquiry into a Broward schools contract with a provider of caps and gowns, a Miami-Dade project is underway that will combine an expanded middle school and 200 affordable apartments for school employees, adding funding to a state scholarship program for special needs students is part of next week’s special legislative session, Alachua schools are applying to be included in the state’s year-round school pilot program, Brevard records a 150 percent increase in student disciplinary referrals in the first quarter this year, Clay County schools reach a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over allegations of failing to provide required services to English-learner students and their parents, and more liberal parents in Florida and other states are choosing to home-school their children because of restrictive new laws governing public schools. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade: Construction is underway in the Brickell neighborhood on a seven-story building that will combine an expanded Southside Preparatory Academy middle school with more than 200 apartments for teachers and other school workers. “There’s a teacher shortage nationwide, and the South Florida real estate rental market is extremely expensive, and so this is a unique way in allowing some of our employees an opportunity, especially our new incoming employees, to come into one of these units and others in the future and get started,” said Raul Perez, the district’s chief facilities, design and construction officer. The school is expected to open next fall. WPLG.

Broward: Prosecutors have concluded that the school district “ineffectively managed” a contract with Herff Jones and its former representative Chuck Puleri to provide caps and gowns for graduating seniors, but that “the ineffectiveness led to a breach of contract (that) did not rise to the level of criminal activity.” An investigation was launched after reports that students were overpaying for caps and gowns and that Puleri was providing benefits to school officials. After a critical audit of the relationship was released in 2022, the district “has made efforts to improve its process and oversight of the caps and gowns agreement,” said a spokesperson for the state attorney. Sun-Sentinel.

Hillsborough: A 15-year-old Wharton High School student was arrested last week after breaking a classmate’s clavicle during an assault that was filmed by several students. The suspect was charged with battery. WFTS. WTSP.

Orange: Since the school district imposed a ban on students using cell phones during the school day, and confiscated the devices of violators, officials at schools around the county report that bullying and the number of phone confiscations have declined. Students are making more eye contact with teachers and are more engaged in classes. But the new policy also has intensified surveillance of students and created anxiety for students who can no longer contact their parents. New York Times.

Palm Beach: Thirteen new school choice plans are among the options for students when the district starts taking applications on Wednesday for the 2024-2025 school year. There are 346 choice programs on 182 campuses. The deadline for certain arts programs is Dec. 8, and it’s Jan. 26 for all other applications. Palm Beach Post.

Pinellas: Izella McCree was honored last week for her 50 years as a paraprofessional in the district helping students in pre-K through 3rd grade with their reading. Known as “Grandma McCree,” the 81-year-old has worked at Lakewood Elementary and Sanderlin Elementary, and for the past five years at North Shore Elementary, all in St. Petersburg. She said she tried to retire once, in 2004, but “missed the students too much to stay away.” WTSP. WFTS.

Lee: School officials explained at a town meeting Monday how its “proximity” plan would affect middle schools. The idea, which is already being used in elementary schools, allows parents to choose their child’s middle school but won’t provide transportation if they select one outside their school zone. That cuts transportation costs and creates the “sense of a community school,” said Superintendent Christopher Bernier. School board members will vote Nov. 21 on the plan, which would start next fall. WFTX. Companies tied to OptimaEd chief executive officer Erika Donalds have bought two properties in the county where she intends to build charter schools. Donalds, a former Collier County School Board member and wife of U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds, founded an online school and the virtual reality school Optima Classical Academy. She said the Fort Myers location will open in the fall of 2024, and the Estero site the following year. Naples Daily News.

Brevard: Student referrals for disciplinary problems have increased by 150 percent in the first quarter of this school year compared with the first quarter last year after stricter policies were enacted, according to district data. Instances of willful disobedience are up 53 percent, suspensions 41 percent and detentions 10 percent. Twice as many black students were sent to alternative schools in 2023 compared to 2022, while the number of Hispanic students moving to alternative schools rose slightly and the number of white students so disciplined dropped slightly. WFTV. WOFL.

Clay: District officials and the U.S. Department of Justice have reached a settlement over allegations that the district failed to provide English-learner students with the instruction needed to become fluent in English, and failed to provide non-English speaking parents with school information in their own language. Under the agreement, the district agrees to properly assess English learner students and provide with language services and support, and to provide translation and interpretation of district information to parents who aren’t fluent in English. The DOJ will oversee the district’s implementation of the agreement over the next four years. WJXT. Florida Times-Union. Associated Press.

Alachua: The district has applied to participate in a pilot program that would bring year-round classes to some district elementary schools. H.B. 891, approved in the Legislature earlier this year, establishes the year-round school pilot program that would begin next summer. District apply to get schools into the program. If approved, next summer’s vacation for participating schools would end in mid-July and students would alternate 10 weeks of classes followed by two weeks off through May. Five school districts will be chosen for the four-year test. Gainesville Sun. An assistant cross country coach at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School was fired after he was arrested Friday and accused of sexual battery and sexual molestation of a victim less than 12. William Voelker, 64, had been placed on administrative leave and removed from the campus on Oct. 16, when the school was notified of the sheriff’s investigation. Gainesville Sun.

Flagler: The special needs student who was accused of severely beating a teacher’s aide at Matanzas High School in February has formally entered a plea of no contest to the charge of aggravated battery on a school board employee. Brendan Depa faces a prison term of up to 30 years. Sentencing is scheduled Jan. 31. Daytona Beach News-Journal. Flagler Live.

Colleges and universities: Three university leaders will be inaugurated or confirmed in the next two weeks. Thursday, an inauguration ceremony will be held for Ben Sasse, president of the University of Florida. On Nov. 9, the Board of Governors is expected to confirm Richard Corcoran as the president of New College of Florida and reappoint Martha Saunders as president of the University of West Florida through the end of 2024. News Service of Florida. Miami-Dade County and Miami Dade College are funding a scholarship program to help local high school graduates pay for an associate’s degree at the school. More than 2,000 students could benefit in the first year. Miami Herald. Thirty-one University of Central Florida graduate students are being deployed as counselors in central Florida schools. “It’s a win-win,” said UCF professor Melissa Zeligman of the Project Star program. “Our students are getting to provide services and get their counseling practice. And we get to provide services free of charge to children who likely otherwise wouldn’t receive those services.” WFTV.

In the Legislature: Legislators convene Monday for a special session that will, in part, consider adding funding to the state’s K-12 school voucher program that serves students with special needs. Demand for scholarships has exceeded the supply, and legislative leaders said the session will consider “a mechanism to increase the number of students served under the Family Empowerment Scholarship for students with disabilities.” Advocates also want the cap on enrollment for students with special needs to be eliminated. “It doesn’t make sense to me that the kids with the greatest need, who could be helped the most, are standing on the sideline waiting for an opportunity while all the other students have been given the opportunity with no limitations,” said Steve Hicks, president of the Florida Coalition of Scholarship Schools. News Service of Florida.

Around the nation: As more conservative states, including Florida, make changes in public school education, many liberal parents are joining evangelical parents in choosing to home-school their children. For some, the decision comes with second thoughts. “I wrestle with the ethics of it all,” said one Florida mother. “I can give my kids more resources, but I don’t want the public schools to be dismantled. … I’m contributing to it by pulling my kids out, but at the end of the day, I have to make sure that my kids are getting educated.” Bloomberg. Enrollment in charter schools continues to climb in Florida and nationwide. The percentage of student in Florida charters was 13.3 percent in the fall of 2022, up from 10.4 percent in 2017, according to a report from Moody’s Investor Services. K-12 Dive.

Opinions on schools: When Baby Boomers moved on to college and careers and were replaced by Baby Busters, many schools closed. Today, we see schools remaining either underused or vacant. Policymakers should consider creating a base-closing commission to get zombie schools out of district backlogs and into some sort of productive use. Matthew Ladner, reimaginED. Setting academic standards for school accountability is the easiest step before taking on larger challenges of creating a true community of learners and citizens. Jan Bennitt, Tallahassee Democrat. Going back to college after 20 years away was one of the most frightening decisions I had ever made. But it was worth it to attain the long-term success and sustainability of my dreams and my family’s hopes and dreams. Doragnes Rivera Bradshaw, Orlando Sentinel. In the mistaken belief that it’s gentler to give struggling students second and third chances, schools across the country are essentially withholding honest feedback from kids through no-zero grading policies or by passing students along even though they haven’t mastered the content. Chad Aldeman, The 74. What faculty know that critics don’t is that the accusation of ideological indoctrination is not only deeply insulting to their professional ethics but it is also profoundly condescending to university students, as if they don’t come to college with their own critical acumen and independence of thought. Rollins College President Grant Cornwell, Palm Beach Post.

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BY NextSteps staff