PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla.—School district leaders and principals across the Tampa Bay area joined forces Friday morning in hopes that the University of South Florida might rethink and even reconsider its proposal to close its College of Education undergraduate program.
“One day I just woke up, and I was like I should be a teacher,” said USF College of Education student Baylie Gerlinger.
It’s easy to tell Gerlinger has a passion for education. The junior explained how she could hardly believe when she heard of a plan to close the school’s College of Education undergrad program.
“It was just a bunch of talk about what does this mean? What does this mean for the community? Just all the questions,” said Gerlinger. “I’d still say a lot of us are in a state of denial right now.”
USF leaders pointed to budget cuts and a large drop in enrollment when they made the announcement two weeks ago. The university is cutting $37 million from its annual budget.
Friday morning, superintendents from Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Polk, Sarasota and Manatee Counties alongside principals and other school staff weighed in during a panel discussion with their concerns and the potential impact USF’s proposal could have on their districts.
“We hire on average about 525 teachers annually in Pasco. We get 30 percent of our teachers are from the University of South Florida,” said Pasco County Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning. “Not having the undergraduate program at USF is going to be, I want to stop short of the word devastating, but it is going to have a horrible, tremendously negative impact on us.”
Browning went on to say he’s hopeful the university and district stakeholders can work through the details on how they can preserve the undergrad program. Polk County Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd said up to 20 percent of the teachers they hire each year come from USF.
Hillsborough County Schools Superintendent Addison Davis said the retention rate for USF education graduates after three years in their district is 95 percent.
“The phasing out of the College of Education’s undergraduate program will essentially send our areas most talented future teachers to other communities away from our local school districts and ultimately impact our children,” said Davis. “It will significantly, negatively impact the seamless pipelines that we have created.”
The school’s proposal looks at reconfiguring from a comprehensive College of Education to a “more focused Graduate School of Education” within a different USF college. A USF spokesperson explained that instead of a four-year bachelor’s degree in education, a student could enroll in a five-year program that results in a master’s degree and teacher certification.
Dr. Judith Ponticell, USF’s College of Education interim dean, said during Friday’s discussion this is in an early stage.
“I don’t want to see us not engaged in the preparation of high-quality, high-impact teachers,” said Ponticell. “We want to be your partners, continue to be your partners, and I certainly, certainly want to continue these conversations and really look at it from so what can we do? What are potential ideas? What are potential options? What are potential pathways that we can create together.”
Pinellas County Superintendent Dr. Michael Grego said the announcement shocked local school districts. That's why the superintendent wanted to hold a community discussion about what comes next. Following that discussion, some district leaders said they were encouraged by the dean’s comments.
“I just really want to encourage the university to be the strong leaders in the College of Education that we need,” said Grego. “Each of us are leading major school districts with a tremendous number of employees and this is one aspect that we really do depend on the colleges to provide good, strong, sound teacher preparation.”