Saturday, November 18, 2017
Politics

Florida schools compete for $51.5 million in Schools of Hope money

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TALLAHASSEE — Call it the "Schools of Hope" Sweepstakes.

When state lawmakers passed House Bill 7069 this spring, they enacted a program allowing failing traditional schools to apply for up to $2,000 per student.

Across the state, 57 of 93 failing schools applied for the money. But lawmakers capped the aid so that only 25 schools can get it at any given time.

As a result, the maximum amount that can be distributed this fall to the schools is $51.5 million, about 37 percent of the $140 million allocated for "Schools of Hope." (At most around 26,000 students statewide could benefit from the money, although tens of thousands more remain in failing schools.)

The leftover "Hope" funding will be used later to dole out financial incentives to charter school operators who can set up competing schools near the 93 failing ones. That part of the program hasn't yet been implemented.

The 25 traditional public schools receiving aid will be chosen Sept. 13 by the state Board of Education, whose members will have virtually free rein to accept or deny the applications for any reason — although Republican lawmakers said that the intent of the law was to reward the most innovative ideas.

Some districts chose to apply for all of their eligible schools, while other districts were more selective or didn't choose to seek the money at all.

For instance, Hillsborough County had the most schools eligible to apply at 18, but only three did: Chamberlain High, Forest Hills Elementary and Robles Elementary.

District spokeswoman Tanya Arja said Hillsborough Schools understood the reality presented by the 25-school cap. "We believe funding will be spread across the state, so we want to give our schools the best possible chance to receive this much needed money," she said.

Similarly, only three of five eligible schools from Pinellas County applied: Largo Middle, Midtown Academy and Mildred Helms Elementary.

School officials in Pasco County — home to House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O'Lakes Republican who fought fiercely to enact "Schools of Hope" — didn't apply for their two eligible schools: Ridgewood High and West Zephyrhills Elementary.

District spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said Pasco officials are "confident" both schools will come off the failing schools list after this school year. She noted that West Zephyrhills already qualified for a $300,000 state school improvement grant, and Ridgewood is likely to qualify if it gets assigned another "D" grade. (The school's 2016-17 grade is still listed as "incomplete.")

The districts that did apply proposed a wide variety of ideas to help their most vulnerable students overcome not just academic obstacles, but also the challenges they face at home, including poverty.

Several districts, including Miami-Dade and Hillsborough, proposed hiring new staff to coordinate wraparound services or serve as "community liaisons" to increase parental involvement in the school and to work with local organizations to create a support network for students. Teacher training and professional development are also a common themes through many schools' applications.

Others want to provide nursing staff, medical care and social services, so that would be one less thing students and their families need to worry about.

For instance, Palm Beach Lakes High School in West Palm Beach proposes to contract with the Community Health Partnership to retain social workers who would help address mental health and behavioral issues and provide student and parent counseling.

Oneco Elementary School in Bradenton — where the school says 51 percent of students are Hispanic, 30 percent don't speak English and 100 percent live in poverty — wants to sponsor a "Parent University" in collaboration with Manatee Technical College to "increase parent understanding of how to support their child's learning while educating the parent at the same time to improve the family's lives."

The school wants $100,000 for the "university" so students' parents can take English classes, obtain a high school-level degree (GED), and take technical classes to train for jobs. The money would also help pay for a new "Parents as Teachers" program to teach parents better parenting skills and how to support their child's academics

The DOE initially refused to release any of the applications after a Times/Herald public records request following the schools' Aug. 15 application deadline. The department argued the applications were under a "competitive solicitation" that made them "confidential and exempt" until after the state board selects the winners.

However, nothing in HB 7069 designated the applications as such, and the DOE ultimately published all of the applications online on Aug. 23.

Contact Kristen M. Clark at kclark@miamherald.com. Follow @ByKristenMClark

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