By CHRISTINE HAWES — chawes@bradenton.com

MANATEE — Professional development: such a dry, bureaucratic phrase. And yet, with recent happenings in the Manatee school district, it’s become one of the most controversial and frequently uttered phrases.

It’s the biggest reason why the school board decided in 2007 to let all students out of school 90 minutes early every Wednesday, a practice that was ended by the school board’s recent vote.

Professional development, a fancy word for teacher training, is also the area where two school board members feel more money should be spent in the preliminary $328.7 million budget released by Manatee County Schools Superintendent Tim McGonegal on Wednesday.

And it’s also where at least one school board member believes there may be some waste that can be trimmed.

Teacher training will become even more important in coming years, says Bob Gagnon, Manatee’s assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, because a new curriculum is gradually being introduced throughout the Manatee school system and others nationwide.

The new, more rigorous Common Core State Standards will require teachers to adjust their classroom approach, he said.

Gagnon says tougher teacher evaluation requirements from the state also heighten the importance of teacher training.

And Manatee County’s ongoing effort to improve its overall student performance, from 47th in the state to the top quarter of Florida school districts, is requiring professional development to be geared toward what each individual teacher needs to address their students’ unique needs.

Chuck Fradley, the district’s new director of professional development, was chosen for his position largely because of his experience in customized professional development. Fradley is the former principal at Wakeland Elementary, which as an International Baccalaureate school, had its own unique curriculum that required its own unique professional development.

“You have to make professional development pertinent to the individual,” Fradley says. “What works for ‘School A’ might mean something different than ‘School B.’ Each school needs to have some say in what they need based on their data, and Mr. Gagnon is going to be looking hard at school data to help them identify their needs so we can tailor professional development to meet those needs.”

That’s something the school district wasn’t achieving with the centralized professional development it was providing about once a month during early-release Wednesdays. The other Wednesdays were devoted to school-based professional development or teacher planning.

In a survey about whether early-release Wednesdays should be continued, teachers overwhelmingly identified district-guided professional development as the least useful aspect of their Wednesday afternoons.

“It was all research-based things the district was bringing,” Fradley says, “but professional development is all about timing and need. And sometimes the timing of the professional development wasn’t right. Schools weren’t ready to hear that particular message. Or maybe it was past time to hear that message.”

Gagnon and Fradley are in the midst of another survey of teachers to pinpoint the changes they want to see in upcoming professional development. Gagnon also has floated the possibility of delivering more professional development through online resources rather than person-to-person.

“Live might be the best practice for some topics, but a blended model that combines live with online is the most cost-effective and is the most respectful way to utilize a professional’s time,” Gagnon says, “It allows them to do it when they can, and where they want to do it.”

Some teachers are skeptical of how online professional development might be carried out. Elizabeth Harris, a third-grade teacher at McNeal Elementary, says it’s hard for teachers to receive answers to follow-up questions when using online professional development.

Linda Carnes, a language arts teacher at Palmetto High, says online learning only adds to the time pressures teachers are already facing. And Wade Smith, an art teacher at Nolan Middle School, says the effectiveness of online professional development will depend on the quality of resources the district provides.

“The idea is good, but how it plays out remains to be seen,” Smith said.

Smith suggested the school district make better use of its own teachers to mentor each other, especially in the area of technology. He also said technology is probably the one area of district-provided professional development he found most useful.

Harris suggested Manatee follow a practice common in Pinellas County, where teachers are allowed “trade days,” days off they are allowed to have during the school year that they can then devote to professional development, often over the summer.

Professional development has emerged as a controversial piece of the budget at least for board members Julie Aranibar and Karen Carpenter. Both say McGonegal’s proposed budget does not provide enough funding for professional development.

The two board members also question whether administrative personnel can be cut from areas that used to be associated with professional development. “We should not have to hire all the people who were tasked with the Wednesday planning,” Aranibar wrote in a letter to McGonegal.

Carpenter said she had heard that 116 people were employed by the professional development department and questioned whether the department’s personnel costs could be reduced.

But Gagnon said some of that information is simply wrong: there are only six employees in the “staff development” department, which is proposed to have a $752,539 budget this coming year.

“Our professional development staff and budget is very small for a district our size,” Gagnon said. He also said that he could not “justify” expanding the department given the financial pressure faced by the school district’s teachers.

Results of the professional development survey of teachers should be available by the end of this coming week, Gagnon said.

Christine Hawes, Bradenton Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @chawesreports.
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