Putting Education Reform To The Test

Robin Sussingham

  • Email: rsussingham@wusf.org

Florida Education Coverage Heading To New Home


For more than four years, StateImpact Florida has put the state’s education policies to the test by reporting on the impact the decisions are having on the lives of students, parents, and educators.

Our staff has changed over the years, but our public media reporters in Miami and Tampa never wavered in sharing stories that matter to you and to our communities.

Today, we’re making a small move. Our online stories will be moving to a new location. You’ll now be able to find our education coverage on our local websites: WUSFNews.org and WLRN.org.

And as always, you can find our continued in-depth coverage on WUSF 89.7 FM in the Tampa Bay area and in South Florida at WLRN 91.3 FM.


Head Gear For Florida High School Girls Lacrosse: Worth It?


Two years ago the Florida High School Athletic Association, or FHSAA, passed a wildly unpopular mandate, requiring girls lacrosse players to wear head gear. The organization said it was responding to concussion risks — but critics say policy and public perception of risk are getting ahead of the actual data.

For the past two seasons, girls lacrosse players in Florida have had to wear a kind of a thick headband. The FHSAA had required it — against the recommendations of the national lacrosse organization , US Lacrosse, and before performance standards had been created for the gear.

Other states don’t require any head gear — including states such as Virginia, which have well established programs.  The sport is a relative newcomer in Florida, and some coaches and  athletes say the FHSAA’s head gear decision indicates an unfamiliarity with the sport.

“I’m not trying to be petty about it, but they’re definitely unattractive,” said Delaney Turton, a junior at Plant High School in Tampa who plays attack on the girls varsity lacrosse team.  “So, I know for a lot of girls looking to try a new sport, it might turn some people away just out of embarrassment, and it does slow down the growth of the game, which is sad.”

Plant senior midfielder Madi McGonnigal agrees.

“We were already trying to gain respect as a sport. We just became varsity three years ago. The boys were just starting to respect us, and other states were starting to respect us, and the headband thing put a damper on it,” she said.

McGonnigal added that in her experience, girls tended to play more aggressively, and come closer to hitting with their stick, when they relied on the headgear to protect themselves and other players.

FHSAA officials say the implementation was approved as an additional safety measure to reduce head injuries, not necessarily concussions. That’s good, because they won’t, says Dr. Gillian Hotz, director of the University of Miami’s concussion program in sports medicine.

“No helmet prevents concussion,” Hotz said. “It’s acceleration-deceleration. It’s a back and forth [motion]. So  these cap-like helmet covers, that they’re thinking of for the women’s lacrosse,  I just don’t think they’ll be effective at all.”

Hotz said policy decisions such as the FHSAA decision on girls lacrosse are a knee-jerk reaction to public anxiety, before the scientific evidence has come in. Scientists  say without good studies, it’s impossible to judge the risk of concussion or of long term health problems, and know whether it’s worth changing the culture of an established girls sport.

Dave Cassidy is Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Toronto in Canada, and has studied the existing scientific literature on concussion. He said data are lacking, and that any calculation of concussion risk had to be balanced with the benefits of youth sports in an age of rampant obesity and inactivity.

“I think there’s a lot of interest in this now,” Cassidy said, “and hopefully we’re going to see more and more studies —  hopefully, good quality studies —  because right now we don’t know the risk. But it’s been publicized a lot.”

Hotz said all the publicity may be causing some over-reaction.  Problems with professional athletes and concussion, such as highlighted in the recent movie “Concussion,” she said, can not be applied to youth sports.

“We’ve got to bring the pendulum back,” she said. “There has been some hysteria with the movie and other things, but I think we have to bring the pendulum back.”

Hotz said it is known that multiple hits to the head can cause problems, especially to a young person with a developing brain. But the best way to prevent those concussive hits, she says, is by educating everyone — players, parents, coaches and refs — about how to play more safely.

Plant High School girls lacrosse Coach Jayne Chapman said US Lacrosse has been working hard to educate everyone involved about concussion prevention and treatment.

“If your players are  hacking away and consistently coming close to people’s heads,  that’s where the education process is more important than the gear part of it,” Chapman said.

Girls lacrosse, she said, is a completely different sport than the boys, who wear hard helmets and pads. It is about finesse and precision, not physical contact.

“The concern is if you start equipping the girls with the same protective gear as the boys, then you are giving them license to play a sport that is not girls lacrosse,” she said.

US Lacrosse has issued new performance standards, and the new headgear will have to cover the head like a cap. It will be optional for other states, but Florida’s girls lacrosse teams will start wearing them next spring.

Parlez-Vous Java? Computer Science Proponents Look For Ways To Attract Students

Tom Rompella leads the Introduction to Information Technology class at Keys Collegiate Academy

Nancy Klingener / WLRN

Tom Rompella leads the Introduction to Information Technology class at Keys Collegiate Academy

Computer coding is the language that tells a computer what to do, but is it a foreign language? The Florida Senate has approved a bill saying yes; if it passes into law, high school students could substitute computer coding for required foreign language credits. It’s an attempt to get more of the state’s students into computer science classes.

But while that effort is being debated, a computer science advocate in the Keys isn’t waiting for the state to pass a law. He’s putting his own money into the push for computer literacy.

The coding/foreign language bill is not without opposition. State Senator Jeff Clemens summed it up this way:

“We’ve removed so many opportunities for culture in our public schools. We’re not requiring anybody to take art. We’re not requiring anybody to take music. Basically all we have left, that teaches culture, that teaches us more about what other cultures are like, that teaches more about what the world is like, is the requirement to take a foreign language.”

Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent  Alberto Carvalho is also an outspoken critic, telling the Miami Herald that, in his view, coding and foreign language are not interchangeable.

Carvalho says the bill would put college applicants at a disadvantage. While the bill requires state colleges to accept the coding credits in lieu of foreign language, most other colleges would still be expecting to see that students had taken a foreign language.

Several civil rights groups have also released a statement denouncing the measure, calling it “misleading and mischievous.”

But the bill’s sponsor, Senator Jeremy Ring of Margate, says computer science is a basic skill that every student must have. “You can not do a job in this world — construction, media, politics, law, medicine — whatever it is, unless you have an understanding of technology, or you will be left behind,” Ring said.

John Padget of Key West agrees. Padget is the Vice Chair of the state Board of Education and founded a program called Monroe Computes, in which he pays kids in Monroe County to take computer classes.

Padget says Florida lags the rest of the country when it comes to computer science,  and Monroe county, he says, in behind the rest of the state. He says he felt he had to do something.

“We saw a real opportunity to jumpstart computer science and coding learning in Monroe County, and we’re doing it,” Padget says.

Padget and his  partner Jacob Dekker put $100,000 towards the program. They’re paying students up to $500 to finish a Microsoft Office specialist certification. He concedes that Microsoft Word or Excel are not really coding courses — but says it’s a place to start, and are sparking interest in going further.

Keys Collegiate Academy Senior Ryan Sziko took Padget up on his offer, and lists the reasons why.

“A, I get three college credits,” Sziko says. “B, it’s a great skill to learn,
and C, they were paying 500 bucks. ”

Sziko says now he’s teaching himself coding at home.

Padget  says coding is a crucial skill and he encourages any initiative to develop computer science learning in Florida. But when asked about the  lawmakers current proposal, and whether coding could be considered a substitute for a foreign language, Padget says ‘no.’ It can’t replace foreign language, he says, which is a window to the wider world.

The New SAT Is Coming Soon

SAT pic

Like many parents of high school juniors, I’m getting anxious about upcoming college applications and what it’ll take to get in, such as doing well on the SAT. Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that the College Board, creator of the SAT,  is debuting a new test in March and these are the first changes in more than a decade.

But I’m not sure my son Daniel is worried about it enough!  He’s a student at Harrison School for the Arts in Lakeland, and he was doing homework in front of the television when I decided to speak to him about what he’s doing to prepare for the entrance exams.

Me:  “Alright, I think you should turn the football off.”
Daniel: “I think I can just do both, because it’s the pro bowl….I’ll mute it!”
Me: “But don’t you think you should get serious about studying for the SAT?”
Daniel: “I AM serious about studying for the SAT.”
Me: “How?”
Daniel: “I have an app.”

His app is called “Daily Practice for the new SAT.”  It’s put out by the College Board, and a company called Khan Academy. The College Board has contracted with Khan Academy to provide SAT test preparation to anyone, online, free of charge. That’s something new, and it’s an attempt to level the playing field between families that can afford to hire expensive testing tutors — and those who can’t.

I’ve heard several counselors say the Khan Academy prep is very good. But wouldn’t face to face coaching be even better? I thought I needed to talk to a highly regarded testing tutor in St. Petersburg, and see what he said about the revamped SAT.

Richard Estren has been preparing students for these tests for around 25 years. Among the many postcards tacked on his wall, I saw a graduation announcement for Stanford, one of  several of his students that he said was admitted to that elite school.

One reason that the College Board is making changes to the SAT, said Estren and others I’ve talked to, is because the other college entrance test, the ACT, has been taking over the market share in the past few years. In response,the new SAT is taking its cue from the ACT in its changes, and becoming more aligned with what kids should be learning in class, including common core standards.

One of those big changes on the way is those esoteric SAT words, like “lachrymose” or  “raconteur,” going away in favor of more commonly used words. There’s no penalty for guessing now. Also, the essay is becoming optional.

Reading passages — not just math sections — will include charts and graphs to interpret.

“I’m guarded about the new SAT,” Estren said. “I think it will be harder for many students. It’s going a little more analytical in its approach. They’re raising the bar, they’re raising the bar. And that’s okay, I just don’t think a lot of students are quite ready for that yet.”

Estren said he’s advising kids to skip the March SAT and wait for later sittings,or just stick with the ACT. But he said the College Board did a “great thing” by providing free Khan Academy training to any students that want it.

The key, he said, is what he calls “P3.”  Practice, practice practice.

I asked my son Daniel about that. He said so far he’s just been trying to keep up with his schoolwork, sports and extra-curricular activities.

Me: “So you mean you feel like there’s not a lot of time to  study for these tests, is that what you’re saying?”
Daniel:  “I pay a lot of attention to my classes. So I guess I haven’t paid attention a lot to the SAT or ACT. I try not to be overwhelmed about it.”

Oh, well. Maybe Daniel is right not too stress over the tests so much. He’s a good student, and he’ll be fine. Estren said he has faith that most  students wind up where they belong. And anyway, at last count, almost 900 colleges are making the tests optional for admission.

The Anemic State of High School Physics in Florida

USF Physics graduate student Alan Kramer in his lab

Robin Sussingham

USF Physics graduate student Alan Kramer in his lab

Physics is the most  fundamental of sciences; it’s an essential stepping stone for  careers in engineering or science. But around the country, fewer than 40 percent of high school students take a physics class. In Florida , that number is much lower — only about a quarter of high school students take physics. Experts say that the trend affects the future earning potential of the state’s students.

Alan Kramer is a fifth year graduate student in physics at the University of South Florida. He’s working in his Tampa lab, which is noisy with the sound of a cryo pump.

“It’s an air conditioner,” he explains, “but instead of using refrigerant, we use helium so we can get the contents of this ultra high vacuum chamber down to around 10 Kelvin or so, which is close to the limit of being cold.”

He’s studying what happens at the atomic level on the surface of solid materials. Besides his research, he teaches undergraduates, and says “what they gain by coming out of a physics class is thinking rationally.”

Kramer says he’s very aware of the importance of a high school physics education, because he once taught it. He taught high school physics in New Jersey, but in Florida, could only find openings for teachers for introductory classes in general science.

Instead, he taught high-level math classes briefly in Sarasota County. When he lost his job in a round of teacher layoffs, he says, he took the opportunity to get his doctorate.

High school physics classes in Sarasota County are hard to come by.  According to data collected by Florida State University Physics Professor Paul Cottle, only about 20 percent of students in that county take the class.

In the state overall, that number is about 25 percent.  And Cottle says, in comparison with the rest of the country, “that’s a third fewer students that have the door opened to the kind of opportunity in physics and engineering careers.”

But even these low physics enrollment numbers don’t illustrate the real extent of the problem, because only a fraction of the existing physics classes are being taught by a qualified teacher.

Cottle says Florida does fine in other STEM classes, like math or chemistry.

“It’s physics which is the science course where we really seem to have gotten stuck,” he said. “It’s a course where you really need a teacher that understands a difficult subject and we have difficulty getting teachers.”

Cottle is active in the effort to get more Florida high school students into physics classes, and he keeps track of how many students are taking physics in all of the state’s 67 school districts.

“There are a lot of rural districts that aren’t offering physics at all,” he says. “You can kind of understand that…These are small districts and have had trouble justifying a physics teacher … But then you see counties that are good size,  and you have to wonder that they’re thinking.”

Counties like Citrus, Pasco and Osceola have only around 5 to 10 percent enrollment. He says the education gatekeepers just don’t get it.

“Administrators and principals and parents don’t really understand how important courses like physics are to the future of their students,” he said.

Important, Cottle says, for social mobility, because physics is also required for the lucrative engineering or science careers that have historically provided a way out of poverty.

If students want to take that path, they’ll need college physics.

“About a quarter of the engineering majors who arrive at Florida State (University) have not taken a physics course in high school,” Cottle said. “That’s a real problem for them. That leaves them way behind.”

Cottle says it will continue to be difficult to recruit good high school physics teachers as long as the pay is so much lower than what they can make outside of education.

And as former physics teacher and current grad student Alan Kramer says, “I don’t think teachers are valued.”

Kramer says he’ll continue to try to educate high school students through outreach programs, but his future is now in research.

Parents Fight For School Recess

rally for recess

Robin Sussingham

Remember recess? When you knew that if you just sat still for a couple more hours, you and your friends could go racing out to the merry-go-round or the hopscotch court for a daily dose of fun? In many public elementary schools in Florida, recess has become a thing of the past. And parents are not happy.

Five year old Garrett Hoskins goes to Highlands Grove Elementary school in Lakeland. He’s in kindergarten, and he loves recess. He’s kind of an authority on the slides.

“The slide I like is the bumpy one,” Garrett says. “I like the circle one because that one has sides. The other one doesn’t really have sides. Just short sides, to keep you safe.”

Garrettt goes to recess once a week, on Fridays, for 20 minutes. His mom, Stephanie Hoskins, says that’s not enough.

“Not for bustling five year olds, no,” she says.

They were at a community meeting recently, organized by Polk County school Superintendent Kathryn LeRoy. LeRoy  was responding to a growing and increasingly vocal demand by parents to give kids a break during the school day.

At the meeting, the frustration was palpable. Parents were supposed to ask questions by writing them down on a card and turning it in — but one mom, sitting in the audience, couldn’t contain herself. She said her eight-year-old son hates to go to school.  “He loves being outdoors and he gets no time,” she said. “He has to sit in a classroom from 8:30 until 3 o’clock. He goes to lunch and they’re not allowed to  talk at that time either.”

It probably came as no surprise to these parents when LeRoy presented the research showing the recess is important to kids in lots of ways, physically, socially and cognitively. The American Academy of Pediatrics calls recess crucial to child development.

Superintendent LeRoy told the crowd that she’s all in favor of recess. She said she was forming a county-wide committee to come up with recommendations, and she’d take them to the school board for a vote. But, she said, it’s not as easy as it once was to send the children out onto the playground.

Pointing to the wording of a state education statute that she’d projected up on a screen, LeRoy said, “The reason I am showing this to you is because I want you to get a sense of the magnitude and mandates that are laying on top of us….We are required to teach reading, writing, math, science, social studies, art and music (those are electives), and physical education.”

There’s also a requirement of 90 minutes every day for reading instruction — and more for low performing schools.

The state has made no policies regarding recess, leaving it up to the individual school districts. Some districts have no recess in schools. Others, like Miami Dade, require it for Pre-K through 5th grade. Miami-Dade even has a recess manual, that describes how to teach Double Dutch and hop scotch!

Time for recess has been squeezed out in recent years, but now social media is helping parents, such as Lakeland mother Amanda Lipham, organize recess supporters.
Lipham says she organized the push for recess in Polk when she saw changes in her five year old son.

“He was losing his enthusiasm for school,” Lipham says. “His attitude was changing. I could see his spirit being broken.”

First, Lipham handed out flyers in the car line at her son’s elementary school, and she spoke out at a school board meeting. Then, she formed an online petition that garnered thousands of signatures.

Now parents are creating similar online petitions around the state. More than 2200 people have signed a petition to make recess mandatory in Pinellas County, This fall, Parents in Osceola County also started a petition demanding recess. And a similar effort in Orange County last year led to a school board resolution recommending that schools provide the breaks.

And that’s the way change might happen, says Judy Stockman, who teaches at Sykes Elementary school in Lakeland — when parents get involved.

“Teachers have already voiced their opinions about this and nothing happened,” Stockman says.

The state does require every school to provide PE for 150 minutes a week. But Stockman, like the Superintendent and the parents at the meeting, say that’s not the same as recess.

“PE doesn’t count,” Stockman says. “That is structured. What I’m seeing lacking is time for social skills and social development. and that type of thing. Just to go and explore on your own.”

LeRoy said some school districts, like Orange county, have adopted Resolutions in favor of recess. But LeRoy said she wanted a policy for schools to follow.

The Polk County school board will take up the committee recommendations on recess at its Dec. 8th meeting.

Tampa Academy Introduces Students To Maritime Careers

Maritime Academy Director John Paradis (c) on the Port tour

Robin Sussingham / WUSF

Maritime Academy Director John Paradis (c) on the Port tour


Florida is a state that juts out into the water and is home to 14 ports — but still the maritime industry is a mystery to most teens. Now, a rapidly aging workforce in one of the state’s major economic engines is behind a push to reach a younger generation and teach them about sea-going jobs.

In Tampa Bay, maritime interests have teamed up with the Hillsborough School district to create the Maritime Honors Academy at Jefferson High School In Tampa. On a recent morning, 31 students from the the Academy’s freshman class took a tour of the Tampa port. They were welcomed by Port Tampa Bay President and CEO Paul Anderson, who told them “this program is a great way for you to learn about an industry that’s global, and has a great future for many of you, hopefully.

“There’s a lot of people here that, when you graduate, we won’t be working here any more,” Anderson said. “We’re going to be retired.”

And that, he told the students, means job opportunities for you.

Fourteen year old Alexia Hegedus says she’s interested in those jobs. She says she found out something in the program that amazed her. “Ninety-five percent of the world’s goods are traded through ships,” she says.  “It’s a very interesting subject, and I’ve always loved the ocean.”

Our conversation is interrupted when the tour guide points out dolphins, and the students rush to look over the side of the boat.

The dolphins get a bigger response than anything else on the port tour, which I mention to the Maritime program director, John Paradis.

“Eighty percent of [Academy freshmen] want to come in and pet a dolphin,” Paradis says. “The market is flooded with marine biologists, and the pay scale is not as high as it is on the maritime industry side.”

Paradis says that when their eyes are opened to the larger world of shipping, they leave the dolphins behind. The upperclassmen say they want to be naval architects, or ship captains. One junior says her goal is Paul Anderson’s job — CEO of Port Tampa Bay.

As the boat passes through the Ybor Channel, the tour guide points out International Ship Repair, whose President, Dave Sessums, was the driving force behind this Maritime Academy. Sessums is a member of the Tampa port’s Propeller Club, a group that promotes shipping and maritime interests. Working on the Propeller Club’s outreach and education committee, he partnered with the Hillsborough School District to create the program. Sessums says he started out in the shipping industry at age 12, and nearly six decades later, says he feels compelled to draw new blood into the industry.

“You can’t just walk away and let it wither on the vine,” he says.

Sessums says when they created the program eight years ago, they wanted a broader focus of study than they saw at established schools in Florida, such as MAST academy in Key Biscayne, which focuses more on the yachting industry and marine science. With 16 fields of study, they introduce students to the array of possibilities of maritime work

“Those jobs are everything from a welder to a naval architect,” he says. “From a terminal operator to a tugboat captain. There are a lot of careers that most people don’t know about. And we’re getting old.”

Now Propeller clubs in Broward and Brevard county are working with school districts to set up similar maritime programs there.  Last May, the first students graduated from Hillsborough’s other maritime program, at Blake High School. Out of nine graduates, three went to merchant marine academies, and two more work at shipyard trades.

Sessums says he heard a speaker recently — Congressman Elijah Cummings — who summed it up:

“It they can’t see it, they can’t dream it. But once they see it, they start to dream it.”

And that’s the magic of it, Sessums says. For the Maritime Academy freshmen on the boat tour, the hope is that seeing will lead to dreaming.

Why President Obama’s Call For Less Testing Might Not Change Much

President Barack Obama recently said he thinks there should be less testing in schools. He admits his administration is partly to blame for the problem.

Pool / Getty News Images

President Barack Obama recently said he thinks there should be less testing in schools. He admits his administration is partly to blame for the problem.

Recently, President Barack Obama admitted he’d made a mistake when it comes to public schools.

Like most people with big news to share – he posted it on Facebook.

“I also hear from parents who, rightly, worry about too much testing,” Obama said in a video posted to the White House’s Facebook page.

For more than a decade, the federal government has required schools to test students every year and use those results to force changes in schools.  And since the late 1990s Florida has used tests the same way.

The president now says he wants less testing in schools.

To be clear, President Obama says he’s worried schools are “obsessing” about testing.

But he’s not isn’t saying that public schools should get rid of the Florida Standards Assessments and other annual exams.

“Our kids should only take tests that are worth taking,” Obama said in the video. “Tests that are high-quality, aimed at good instruction and make sure everybody’s on track.”

The president is asking school districts to limit testing to two percent of class time – but that’s still 26 hours out of the typical school year.

The reason Obama and Florida lawmakers are so focused on testing is parents like Kim Werner from Miami. She’s worried her daughter — who gets good grades — still may not graduate.

Cause she’s got to get a test score to get a high school standard diploma,” Werner said.

Werner was one of dozens of parents at a State Board of Education meeting in Orlando last week pleading for changes to the state’s testing system.

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Deciphering Dueling Stats on Graduation Rates

Graduation rates something something...

kthypryn / Flickr

Experts say it should be simple to calculate graduation rates. But it's not.

It sounded like a story guaranteed to irritate taxpayers: a national study out of Rutgers university says more and more public high school students are taking longer than four years to graduate.

Instead, they’re in school for five or six — or more —  years!

But Florida school officials say that’s not a problem here. And experts say, they both may be right — the difference may lie in some good news from the last several years.

Graduation rates are an important number because it lets us know how our high school students are doing, in terms of being ready to go to college or go into the workforce.

The Rutgers researchers say the U.S. Census data that they used is a more accurate way to measure graduation rate as it follows individuals through their lives.

They found a decline in on-time graduation through generations of high schoolers born in the 1940s to the 1980s, especially in boys and minority students.There was a definite growing trend for students to graduate well after they turned 18.

But education officials in Florida said, that’s not what’s happening here.

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Florida First State To Require Concussion Training For High School Athletes

Florida is the first state in the nation to require high school football players

nholiver / Flickr

Florida is the first state in the nation to require high school football players watch a training video and acknowledge the risk of concussions.

There’s growing concern about the risks of concussions in young athletes. For years, high school coaches have had to take courses on the dangers of head injuries. This year, for the first time, all high school athletes in Florida are required to educate themselves about concussions before they can compete.

As the George Jenkins High School football team practices in the mid-August heat, senior Gavin Engle takes a knee on the sidelines. He was injured in a helmet to helmet collision three days before, and realized he was feeling the effects of a concussion.

“I kind of laid on the ground for a second,” Gavin says. “It took me a minute to get it together. The light hurts, your head hurts, it hurts your eyes, it just makes everything feel like it’s pounding.”

Gavin stopped playing and saw a doctor — but state officials worry that not all athletes would take themselves out of action.

So, the governing body for the state’s high school sports passed a new rule this summer. The Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) has mandated that all athletes have to watch a video about concussions and sign a form saying they understand concussion risks. Florida schools are the first in the country to take this step, and football programs –with their big rosters and summertime practices — are already dealing with the extra paperwork.

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