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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

School board shares updates on literacy programs, union membership

Newberry Elementary charter application remains in contention

<p>A sign in front of the Alachua County Public Schools district office building is seen Sunday, June 6, 2021.</p>

A sign in front of the Alachua County Public Schools district office building is seen Sunday, June 6, 2021.

The Alachua County Public Schools district office was packed with student athletes, coaches and speech language pathologists ahead of the May 7 school board meeting. 

In its meeting Tuesday, the Alachua County School Board congratulated the work of the Hawthorne High School girls basketball team along with Alachua County Public Schools’ arts programs. It also heard updates on the district’s literacy program, teacher union membership, low wages, a contested charter school conversion and a library book challenge.

ACPS K-8 students use i-Ready, an online reading comprehension program sponsored by Florida Credit Union, to exercise literacy skills and increase their reading grade level. 

“The one program that they sponsor that’s really made a huge difference for our students is a secondary reading initiative program,” said volunteer and business partnership coordinator Kelley Kostamo.

This year, students using the program have completed more lessons per week while maintaining the same passing average on lessons, with 943 students having already met their annual i-Ready growth goal and 369 achieving their stretch growth goal, said literary specialist Stephanie Garvin.

i-Ready Stretch Growth goals aim to catch up students performing below grade level expectations.

In ACPS high schools, students use Reading Plus to improve comprehension, vocabulary and fluency. Since the program’s implementation last school year, the district saw an increase in the average number of words students read, said literacy specialist Nicole Withers.

Utilizing the partnership with Florida Credit Union, high schools were able to provide incentives such as raffles for AirPods, pizza parties and sweet treats. 

“You can see that the motivation, the incentive is really making a difference in our students' learning,” Withers said.

The Alachua County Education Association (ACEA) presented an update on the union’s required membership quota and Florida’s low teacher pay. Senate Bill 256 requires organizations representing public employees to maintain 60% union membership in order to be recognized for bargaining. 

“Just two weeks ago, on April 25th, we did exceed the challenge of 60%, well 61% membership for education support professionals and 65% for teachers,” said ACEA President Carmen Ward. 

In the spirit of teacher appreciation week, Ward said the union is full of amazing teachers, but state teacher pay does not match their skills.

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“We [Florida] are the the fourth richest state in the country. Fourth out of 50. But we are 50 out of 50th for not paying teachers enough,” she said.

With cost of living adjustments to National Center for Education Statistics 2021-2022 school year data, Florida pays the lowest teacher salaries. To adjust salaries for cost of living, USAFacts used the 2022 regional price parity for each state to compare teacher salaries across the country.

The union will continue efforts to achieve the best deal for teachers in the county, Ward said. 

The board then approved meeting minutes from April 23 before superintendent Shane Andrew shared comments and updates. There has been no communication from the Florida Department of Education on the highly contested charter school conversion of Newberry Elementary School as of Tuesday, Andrew said.

“At this time, no charter application has been submitted to either Alachua County Public Schools or the Charter School Review Commission for consideration,” he said. “Newberry Elementary School remains a proud member of the Alachua County Public School’s family and continues to receive our full support.” 

Ten ACPS speech language pathologists spoke about being underpaid and understaffed in schools during public comment. 

Taylor Butson, a speech language pathologist at Santa Fe High School, shared an in-depth account of the work she does for the county, describing the large workload she faces due to an understaffed speech pathology department. 

“You’re questioning whether you have time to eat your lunch or if you need to call for one of the outstanding speech and language screenings you haven’t had time to complete yet,” Butson said. 

Working in a short-handed school is overwhelming, she said, especially when she receives emails of other speech language pathology jobs hiring at better rates. 

“We are extremely underpaid and undervalued, resulting in being understaffed,” Butson said. “We are drowning under the weight of our responsibilities, and we are struggling to honor the needs of our students.” 

The following speech language pathologists explained further how low wages in ACPS are triggering the staffing shortage. 

Other public comments touched on the book challenging process and the possible conversion of Newberry Elementary School.

Before moving to the consent agenda, Superintendent Andrew recommended the appointment of Gabrielle Jaremczuk as the district's chief financial officer. The motion passed unanimously. 

The book challenge case for “When Aiden Became a Brother” by Kyle Lukoff was the meeting’s final order. 

The book’s outside hearing officer, Bessie Jackson, recommended the book remain in the elementary library where it is currently placed in the sibling relationships section. 

Jackson deemed the book to be suited for student needs/abilities and appropriate for the grade levels in which the library serves. 

The challenge was originally submitted by Crystal Marull, the UF online spanish program coordinator, on the basis that “When Aiden Became a Brother” is not suited for student needs or abilities, and the material is not grade level appropriate. However, superintendent Andrew recommended passing Jackson’s motion to keep the book on the shelf. 

The board allowed 10 minutes for the petitioner to present their case. In place of Marull, retired lawyer Robert Edward presented the opposition. 

“I should not have to defend myself or my challenge,” Edward said. “Your district elites should have to defend the educational value of the book under statutory criteria.” 

Edward accused the district of being pro-indoctrination of children to queer theory. 

Staff Attorney Susan Seigle defended the book. 

“It’s a sweet book,” she said. “It has no sexual content other than this gender identity issue.” 

The board unanimously approved keeping the book in the library.

Contact Megan Howard at Follow her on X @meganmhxward.

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Megan Howard

Megan Howard is a second-year journalism major and the K-12 Education reporter for The Alligator. When she's not writing, you can find her rewatching the Eras Tour movie or reading The Hunger Games series.

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