ST. PETERSBURG — If the crowds that showed up for two open houses last week are any indication, the Pinellas County school district may have hit on a recipe that could finally turn around one of its most struggling schools.
The two events drew more than 500 families intrigued by the district’s plans to re-invent Midtown Academy as a K-5 school with two magnets under one roof — one focused on "cultural arts" and the other filling what the district sees as a dire need for a full-time gifted program in south county.
Some 1,400 gifted students in kindergarten through fifth grade attend public schools in south county, but just 60 of them attend what is now the district’s only full-time gifted program, the Center for Gifted Studies at Ridgecrest Elementary in Largo, said Coral Marsh, the district official in charge of gifted education.
"That need alone is a driving factor behind this," Marsh said, adding that a large number of families are on waiting lists at several popular magnet and fundamental programs clustered in south county.
"So we know that there’s a desire from the community and from parents to have more magnets that they want to send their kids to," she said.
The district has received applications from more than 170 students for seats at Midtown Academy in the first few days of the special application period, which ends May 4. And officials expect more to do the same based on calls, emails and the robust open house turnout.
"We’re just happy that we have another option," said Mary Evancavich, of St. Petersburg, a Ridgecrest parent who plans to apply for a spot at Midtown Academy next year for her son, who will enter third grade.
"Ridgecrest has been wonderful to us and our family, but it’s a long drive," she said at Saturday’s open house, adding the district’s school bus routes don’t work with her family’s schedule.
The daily trek "can be 45 minutes to 60 minutes in the morning and even longer at night," she said. "My husband and my son don’t come through the door until 6:30 at night, every night."
According to Evancavich, several Ridgecrest families are interested in making the switch. "We’ve been texting all week," she said. "They also are optimistic."
But even as they show interest, many parents have made clear that making the jump to Midtown Academy gives them some pause. Among their concerns are the unknowns, including whether a brand new program would offer the same caliber of instruction as the more established Ridgecrest. There’s also the matter of the school’s recent history.
The school at 1701 10th St. S was built in 1926 and once was home to Southside Fundamental Middle, a high-performing and well-integrated campus that the district shut down in 2010 as a cost-cutting move over concerns about the building’s age. More recently, it has limped along as a K-8 program with an F grade from the state, first as the University Prep charter school and for the last two years as a district school.
Asked multiple times and in different ways about how they plan to turn that around, district officials tell parents they are optimistic.
Midtown principal Portia Slaughter said quarterly tests given by the district show the students have made academic gains despite "three years of them falling further and further behind" in the charter school. "For the last two years, we’ve really been bridging the gap," she said.
The school’s enrollment is 384, but it will lose about 200 students as it sheds the middle grades after this year. Of the current K-5 students, 168 have indicated they plan to stay and be part of the new magnet.
Yes, those students have struggled, Marsh acknowledged, "but we do believe this magnet is going to engage our students and I do believe you’ll see that grade go right up."
She also addressed another concern — that parents will commit to the school only to see it fail and the district back out.
Marsh said she has talked with School Board members and superintendent Mike Grego, and all have indicated they are "very committed to seeing this happen and are very excited about it."
In district surveys, the top three programs that Pinellas parents say they want for their kids are STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), followed by arts and gifted, said Ellen Truskowski, head of district application programs. With Midtown hitting two of those, Truskowski and other district officials don’t see the program going away any time soon.
"We kind of foresee smaller numbers year one, until people see how it’s working, what it looks like," she said. "And then we are expecting to build from there. There are even plans for long term if it is that successful. There are plans for where they would put a wing in. So it is our intent that this is going to be a go."
Slaughter, the principal, said she will have a vested interest in seeing the school succeed. Her own child will enroll in Midtown’s third grade next year.
"We will get a wing," she told parents. "I know it."