Last year, with barely half the students at Lakewood Elementary in St. Petersburg reading at grade level, the school district decided it was time for a sweep. When the dust cleared, 21 teachers — nearly half the staff — had transferred.
In their place: 16 rookies, including a bald, bespectacled, former real estate agent named Christopher Thompson.
Thompson, 38, was done being processed for his new job 18 hours before he said good morning to his first class. By week's end, one of his fifth-graders was punching the walls. Others were sleeping or talking back.
"Open your book."
Thompson, a longtime Brandon resident whose mother and sister are teachers in Hillsborough, knew the job would be hard. But not driven-to-tears hard.
A month into it, he was crying and thinking: I may have to quit.
• • •
Schools around Tampa Bay let out this week, leaving more than 25,000 teachers easing into summer break. None deserve a breather more than the 16 rookies at C-rated Lakewood.
What happened there is a sign of the times. More and more, state and federal accountability rules are laying the whammy on perpetually struggling schools.
Tweaks are out. Shock treatment is in.
In the most high-profile example, officials in Rhode Island in February fired the entire staff at Central Falls High School. Teacher unions condemned the move, but President Barack Obama praised it: "If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn't show any sign of improvement, then there's got to be a sense of accountability."
More schools in Florida will find themselves in Lakewood's shoes. In Pinellas, three high schools — Lakewood, Boca Ciega and Dixie Hollins — are likely to join F-rated Gibbs High under intense state oversight this fall. And district officials said this week that 10 or 11 teachers at each are being "involuntarily transferred."
The question is: Who takes their place?
Having a platoon of rookies isn't ideal. Research and common sense suggest new teachers aren't as effective as those with a few years on the job. Up to 50 percent of them will leave the profession within five years.
But proven veterans aren't flocking to high-needs schools. And many districts, like Pinellas, don't offer many meaningful incentives to lure them.
Why not? "That's a good question," said Pinellas School Board member Mary Brown. "I've been asking it for years."
Spurred by state mandates, the district and the local teachers union are working on financial incentives. But with the district whacking its budget, whatever emerges will be modest.
So schools like Lakewood, in need of superstars, must put their faith in novices.
• • •
Thompson was as desperate for work as Lakewood was for a teacher.
He had been in real estate 12 years. In 2006, he made $175,000 in commissions. But over 18 months, his son, now 4, had 29 eye surgeries for congenital glaucoma. Health insurance didn't cover it all. Bankruptcy followed, along with foreclosure and food stamps. For three months, the family lived in an RV.
Thompson became a certified blackjack dealer, banking on a job at the Hard Rock in Tampa. But when the casino didn't expand as expected, he turned to teaching, completing a program at Hillsborough Community College that did not include a stint as an intern.
He mailed 120 resumes. He got one interview. For a position with 100 applicants.
Fast forward to last summer. Thompson was living in Coquina Key in St. Petersburg. His wife saw a job opening at Lakewood.
In an interview with principal Cynthia Kidd, he told his story. He assured her: I know about challenges.
"She said, 'I believe you, but Lakewood's a different kind of challenge,' " he said.
Thompson took the job anyway.
• • •
Kidd, in her first year as principal, is plain-spoken and tough-minded. She is protective of her staff. She would not allow the Times to see the rookies interacting with students.
She knows some parents were not happy with the changes.
"There was a great loss there," said Kip Curtis, an Eckerd College professor with two students at Lakewood. He said some teachers needed to go, but not all — and those that did took years of community relationships — "social capital," he calls it — with them.
Kidd conceded that 16 rookies (including a guidance counselor and specialists) is not optimal. But to build a new culture at a struggling school, she said, "You have to do what you have to do."
The rookies were assigned veteran teachers as mentors, and met monthly as a group. They bonded, laughing over dinners at Red Mesa. "These teachers are like glue. They stick together," Kidd said.
Thompson said he benefited from the rookies and the vets.
"I had 15 people in the same shoes as me," he said. "I had 15 people I could vent to, talk to. There were no egos."
On the other hand, the veterans came through with the advice he needed most: Get mad all you want. Punish the students all you want. But nothing will change until you find a way to connect, to learn what each kid cares about.
So, slowly, Thompson did just that. One student was into football. One was a dynamic singer. One dug chess.
"Who knew?" he said.
Thompson let the student play chess at lunch. Before long, half the class wanted to play.
When Thompson saw anger issues simmering in the student who was punching walls, he took the student aside immediately.
"When he saw that I really was trying to reach him … he started to open up," Thompson said. "He'd come to me and say, 'Mr. Thompson, I'm really having a bad day.' "
By year's end, the flareups were rare.
• • •
The first public sign of how the new Lakewood is doing surfaced last month.
Third-grade Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores showed 48 percent were reading at grade level — the same as last year — while the percent doing math at grade level dropped from 52 to 46 percent. (The fourth-and fifth-grade scores — including for Thompson's class — won't be out until the end of June.)
The scores are "telling me there are things we need to work on," Kidd said.
But she didn't blame her new teachers. They deserve a few years to gel and show results, she said. "Sometimes surgery has to happen, and it takes time to heal. You can't just jump out of bed."
Lakewood will have slightly fewer students next year, so one of the new teachers won't be back because of staff reductions.
But Kidd expects the rest will be.
• • •
Wednesday. The Lakewood cafeteria.
Thompson wore a crisp, dark suit for the fifth-grade graduation ceremony. His students were all beaming smiles. Blue mortarboards on their heads.
"Thanks for being the best teacher ever," one of them told Thompson in a farewell speech. Another said he learned this from his teacher: "When you know how to respect, you get respect back."
Thompson said he's looking forward to the break, but is pumped for next year. He's already working on a special project.
A chess club.
Ron Matus can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8873.