Emails reveal changes in PATS, gifted services planned for months

Despite repeated statements that the Program for Academically Talented Students Center is not closing, emails between the Escambia School District’s top administrators for gifted services and the Public Relations Coordinator seem to indicate otherwise.

Pensacola Today requested any emails between Superintendent Malcolm Thomas, district staff, and the School Board referencing PATS and gifted services, as well as emails between the director of Exceptional Student Education, Teri Szafran, and Program Specialist for Gifted, Pam Cebula from July 2014 through February 2015. We received nearly 270 pages.

The request was made after the Escambia School District’s Feb. 12, workshop meeting when Thomas, Cebula, and Szafran presented an update on how they are now delivering gifted services and answered questions from the school board about the changes.

During that meeting, board member Jeff Bergosh wanted to know if there was a plan to change the delivery of gifted services at the PATS Center and throughout the district, and if so, why didn’t Thomas disclose those changes sooner.

“We weren’t consulted at all,” Bergosh told Thomas.

“This is the first opportunity I’ve had Mr. Bergosh. Christmas was a month ago,” the superintendent answered. He and his staff said Pensacola Today broke the story before they had a chance to discuss it with the board.

“But if you were going that direction, obviously there must have been conversations between you and your senior staff October, November, of last year,” Bergosh countered.

“Most of the real specific conversations have occurred in the last four to five weeks,” Thomas replied. “We’ve known what’s been happening with the population, but in the last four to five weeks, we’ve gotten very serious about, ‘What are we going to do to enhance what we do on the campuses, what’s that look like? How do we manage that?’

Based on the emails, administrators have been discussing the changes for months and began implementing them throughout the district last fall.

On Aug. 21, a district employee asked Cebula, “Are we suppose to offer PATS to students that choose daily services at Bailey?”

“If they can receive 5 days of gifted at your school then we have met our legal obligation to the student,” Cebula responded. “We are working to build capacity within our schools. So, you do not have to offer enrichment at another program.”

Reports about changes to the PATS Center broke in January.

The nearly 50-year-old program offers specially trained teachers and curriculum for gifted students at the Brown Barge Middle School campus, but enrollment has been steadily declining, as much as 40 percent since 2010.

PATS Chart 2 Table 2

Some parents and students say district staff have been discouraging them from choosing PATS, but Thomas says the decline is the result of more options.

There are more than 8,300 special education students in the Escambia school district, including gifted students and those with disabilities. The district receives between $11,000 to $12,000 in state funding for each child.

Most elementary and middle schools now offer expanded gifted services in individual schools. Schools that don’t have enough “gifted” teachers or students travel to another school’s enrichment center or mini-gifted center.

Cebula emailed school principals Sept. 4, saying, “Due to declining numbers at the PATS Center we have the opportunity to increase gifted instructional days at our mini-gifted centers. I apologize in advance for the disruption this causes your school’s daily schedules. These changes will begin on Monday, September 15th. Transportation is onboard and is working to provide us with new routes and times for pick-up and return of your students. Please find the new plan below.”

Cebula goes on to include a list of enrichment centers and a few days later, crafted a letter for schools to give parents who had students enrolled at the PATS Center, informing them enrollment was declining and the increase of gifted teachers made it possible to provide services in many home schools.

Thomas says the move cuts down on lost school time since students are bused to the center one day a week and allows them to offer more services to a wider population.

Some parents, students, and teachers who support the PATS Center, however say the separate, specialized program best meets students’ academic and social needs. 

More than 40 people spoke at February’s school board meeting, asking Thomas not to close the center, believing that was the ultimate goal based on the changes they had already seen.

“I have never said we’re closing the PATS Center,” Thomas said.

However, the district’s public relations coordinator, Kim Stefansson, made a contradictory statement when emailing Szafran about Pensacola’s Today coverage of the PATS Center changes, specifically an editorial by staff writer and former PATS Center student, Mike Ensley.

Steffanson told Szafran Jan. 28, “I doubt we will ever be able to convince him that ending the chance for one day a week with kids like him…that day to make contact with other bright kids from around the district…is ever going to be the same.

“And truthfully — it’s not the same — but we have to explain how the new model is still wonderful — different but wonderful…that we still have ways for kids to be inspired…He is going to be a hard sell,” Stefansson writes.

In her correspondence, Szafran said Ensley needs to be better informed about how gifted services will be delivered. She states: “I will pull my ‘gifted’ mom card out if I have to.”

This reporter first contacted the public relations coordinator in January about possible changes to the PATS Center. Stefansson then sent Szafran an email, asking the exceptional education director to call and discuss the request.

Szafran replied, “Kim, please speak with either Mr. Thomas or Ross (Norm Ross, assistant superintendent) to see what they advise. They are aware of our plans and what they want to relay.”

Pam Cebula started as the district’s program specialist for gifted in July of 2014. Emails she sent to staff Aug. 29, show Cebula met with teachers at the PATS Center with the intent of seeking two who would volunteer to leave the center due to declining enrollment.

She later wrote a parent that she was trying to save their jobs.

Cebula also emailed Szafran asking if they would replace an administration clerk who was retiring from PATS.

Szafran replied, “We should talk about this,” and by October, Szafran emailed staff that, “after much discussion with Pam and review of the tasks the clerk position has been doing, coupled with the decreased enrollment at the PATS Center, we will not be filling the clerk position at the PATS Center.”

In December, school board member Patty Hightower emailed Thomas about changes at the PATS Center after concerned parents contacted her.

“This district is not closing PATS,” Thomas replied. “We had a staffing issue and part of the solution was to reduce the PATS Center by one unit (their class counts were extremely low).”

Pensacola Today sent a number of the emails to Hightower and Jeff Bergosh, Wednesday afternoon. Hightower is in the process of reviewing them, but said trust is important and she believes if Thomas had communicated this plan sooner to parents and students, the conversation could have been handled better.

“It’s the unknown that causes parents pain, because they’ve given you their most prized possession,” Hightower said. “I get frustrated because they don’t seem to understand that it’s easy to talk to parents.”

Bergosh has reviewed several of the emails and said he is “very disappointed” with the way the administration handled these changes. He believes Thomas should have consulted the board and used a series of equivocations, like whether PATS was a program or a delivery method, to push the plan.

“I have no doubt that there was an intent to constrict attendance at the PATS Center,” Bergosh said. “I don’t buy into, that it’s a delivery method. I think the bigger issue is that this is a dysfunctional structure.”

Bergosh said it’s not personal to Thomas, in fact he agrees with the superintendent “90% of the time,” but Bergosh believes a school superintendent should be an appointed position and not an elected one, because otherwise there is little accountability when the voting public isn’t aware of changes within the district.

“It simply gives too much power to one person,” Bergosh explained. “The board is really marginalized in the structure. Take the politics out of it and get an appointed, professional superintendent.”

Per our public information request, the graphic below was provided by the Escambia School District to show where and how many middle and elementary school students are receiving gifted services.