When the area superintendent called with the news, Blanton Elementary principal Deborah Turner thought it was a joke. Blanton? An F? Her school had been held up by the Pinellas school district as a model for other high-poverty schools. Educators came from far and wide to visit. Blanton couldn't be an F.
Then the TV news truck rolled up.
The next day, 140 Blanton staffers lured Turner into the library by having someone tell her it was on fire. They handed her a trophy that said, "Blanton's best cheerleader."
"Don't worry," they told her. "We're going to beat this mess."
Then, despite the odds, they did.
With disco and popsicles.
• • •
Blanton is among the poorest schools in Pinellas. Tucked along a humble stretch of 54th Avenue N, between St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park, it sits next to an apartment complex offering $150 move-in specials, and backs into Copher's U Pull It, an auto salvage yard stacked high with clunkers.
Three in four Blanton students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. A growing number speak more Vietnamese and Spanish than English. Earlier this year, administrators discovered a student was coming in late because her family doesn't have an alarm clock where they live — in their car.
Shocking? Not at Blanton. The same thing happened last year.
And yet, when it comes to academics, Blanton's results are as loud and impossible to ignore as Copher's car crusher.
Six years after its F (which was changed to a D upon appeal), Blanton has earned two A's in a row. It's expecting a third after this year's Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test season, which kicks into high gear Tuesday.
Blanton's scores outpace nearly every other high-poverty school in Pinellas. And better yet, they stack up well next to Perkins Elementary, the highly prized arts magnet in St. Petersburg that has half Blanton's poverty.
"We don't stop. We're relentless," says Turner, 58, Blanton's principal for 11 years. "Kids come in little gifts and boxes. And it's my job to get them out."
It's commonly assumed there is an iron-clad correlation between poverty and academics. Poor school? Bad school. But in Florida, a growing number of high-poverty schools are defying public perception.
Nearly 1 in 4 elementary schools across Florida with poverty levels above 70 percent have improved as much if not more than Blanton in the past five years, a St. Petersburg Times review of FCAT scores shows. Many of those schools — from Wimauma in south Hillsborough to Tangelo Park in Orlando to Arlington in Jacksonville — have 20 percent more kids reading and doing math at grade level than they did in 2003.
Many still have minimal parental involvement. Many still have overall scores that are below average. But some of them are now in the same league as schools with humming PTAs and swarms of soccer moms.
"It cuts against this idea that it is impossible, that it's hopeless" to turn around high poverty schools, says Mike Petrilli, vice president for national programs and policy at the Fordham Institute, an education think tank in Washington, D.C. Schools "can make incremental progress over time that can make a big difference in the lives of these kids."
Looking at FCAT scores alone comes with plenty of caveats. They are but one measure of a school's success. They don't account for potential tradeoffs like narrowing curriculum.
They also can't hide the glass-half-empty flip side, which is this: More than a decade after Florida began focusing more on high poverty schools, many of them continue to struggle.
In Hillsborough, for example, Wimauma is one of 21 elementary schools where more than 90 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. But last year, it was the only one to earn an A. Only two others got B's.
Blanton is a poster child for what's possible. But is it reasonable to expect every struggling school can do the same?
• • •
Turner is tall and tough, spangly and spiritual.
Think Steel Magnolia in a navy suit, with a Jersey girl's taste in makeup and jewelry and a missionary's zeal. She toggles between principal and motivational speaker, diva and flower child (but without the conceit or patchouli). When she mentions a district rule she has bent, she raises a long, sparkly fingernail to her lips and says, "Shhhh, don't tell anybody." When she describes her school's reasons for success, she says, "It's just plain old love."
Turner commutes 90 minutes to Blanton from her home in Hernando County. She routinely stays until 6 or 6:30 p.m. She considered moving to a district office, but her heart wouldn't let her.
"Why would you want to leave a school when you're enjoying the fruits of your labor?" she says.
Turner has labored.
Blanton's F left her sad, angry, humiliated. It did the same to students and staff. But she, and they, channeled their emotions. As much as the F stung, Turner says, it pointed to real shortcomings and led to a brutal self appraisal. Blanton's approach wasn't customized enough to the needs of each of its children, Turner concluded. For them, it had to do better.
The F "was probably the best thing that happened to us," she says.
Then-superintendent Howard Hinesley asked Turner what she wanted. She said she needed another reading teacher. She wanted two teachers transferred.
Done. And gone.
Turner started playing We Are Family, the disco classic, over the PA system every morning. Inspired by the Bucs, who won the Super Bowl that year, she had a boulder delivered so her students could "pound the rock." Her teachers started digging deeper into test data, to see in more detail where their kids were falling short — and to tailor more specific remedies.
Now, more than ever, they adopted Turner's find-a-way mind-set.
"I tell my staff that we cannot go and fix the homes. That's not your job," Turner says. "The job is, the day your child arrives in front of you, pretend you're it. If you have parental involvement, great. But if you don't, you can't use that as an excuse.
"There's no excuses whatsoever. We're way beyond that. If they don't have a pencil, we get it. If they don't have Christmas, we get it. If they don't have shoes, we get it."
Blanton's sweat paid off. In one year, the number of students passing the FCAT in reading climbed from 42 to 58 percent. The F/D became an A.
But more impressively, Blanton's gains weren't a one-year blip.
The school has continued to improve. Last year, 72 percent of students scored at grade level in reading, while 78 percent did in math.
Oscar Robinson is the former area superintendent who broke the F news to Turner. Now a principal at Melrose Elementary, another high-poverty school, Robinson says Blanton Elementary has the ingredients for sustained success.
A dynamic principal. A never-give-up attitude. A stable teaching corps that has bought into the mission.
And now, momentum.
"If a group of people come to an agreement about something and they're devoted to that, they can bring about change," Robinson said.
But that doesn't mean every school can follow in Blanton's path, he said. At least not at a finger snap. It takes time to get the right people and processes in place. It takes time for things to click.
"Every school is different," Robinson said. "Whatever they're doing at Blanton, they've lived that together. They've grown in that place. To pick that up and put it somewhere else? You can't."
• • •
By 8 a.m., the teachers are lined up and digging in.
Doughnuts and croissants. Deviled eggs and quiche. A pile of glistening strawberries. If that wasn't enough to make a hungry educator weak in the knees, somebody even baked a coconut cream pie.
The teachers talk and laugh — and pile plates high.
"We eat a lot," says Debbie Stone, a student support worker who heads Blanton's Refocus Room (some schools call it detention). "You know who the new teachers are. They're the skinny ones."
This is Blanton's "goodie breakfast," a monthly tradition that goes back 45 years. Teams of teachers take turns bringing in the spread.
"If you don't sit down and have fun together, you lose touch with each other," Turner says.
Every year, Blanton's staff has a welcome back party, an autumn barbecue, a winter bash and a Valentine's dinner. Turner awards "bright idea" pins to employees who come up with something innovative, and "hats off" awards to those who go above and beyond. In January, Blanton's wellness coordinator organized a relaxation afternoon, complete with yoga and painting.
Feeling appreciated makes all the difference, Blanton teachers say.
"Sometimes if you're tired and haggard and on your last bit of patience, you'll get that hug or that nice comment and you think, 'I know why I'm here,' " says Sherry Frazier, a speech language pathologist who has been at Blanton 18 years.
"We all know as faculty that we're cared for and respected," says second-grade teacher Kelly Roth, at Blanton nine years.
Blanton's huggy atmosphere envelops students, too. Turner has a term for what her school does with the ones who come in wounded.
"We Blantonize 'em."
Think structure and warmth. Blanton has a strict uniform policy (no jewelry, no mohawks, shirt tucked in); an approach to discipline that is far more likely to involve feeding hamsters than being suspended; a school atmosphere that repeatedly rewards kids with hugs and treats.
Nice on the bus? Popsicle. Motivation in the classroom? Cookie. Reading books on your own? Pick a trinket. Turner's response to some researchers who say tying prizes to performance is unhealthy is, basically, "Whatever."
"We do everything the research tells us not to do," she says.
• • •
Behind the warm fuzzies, there is a breathtaking sense of urgency at Blanton. And a hard-core reliance on data to make teaching better.
Last summer its teachers decided, on their own, to open classrooms to students a half-hour earlier every morning.
They pester administrators for every drop of data they can get.
Many schools use the district's practice tests to diagnose where students are falling short. But Blanton, wanting more data, found a way to put old FCATs to good use. It also developed its own practice test in science, cobbling together questions from other states' science exams and linking each one to benchmarks in Florida's new science standards.
"It does take time from instruction, but it gives us a lot back," says Shirley Carson, the school's data specialist.
You can see the results in Barbara Linton's third-grade class.
On a recent school day, her students were divided up into a half-dozen groups, each playing a different learning game tied to a specific skill — getting the main idea from a reading passage, learning cause and effect, comparing and contrasting, etc. Linton knows from the data which kids need help with which skill.
There is chatter and snickers, but focus, too. One kid does a jig when he gets an answer right.
"This is self motivated," Linton says. "They don't know they're learning."
• • •
Turner was asked in an e-mail, "How noisy is the car crusher?"
This is what she wrote back:
"The salvage yard crushes a lot on weekends. No one ever complains here. They even follow our FCAT schedule. They are good neighbors.
"I am sure probably the third grade hears it, but the buildings are pretty soundproof and the teachers and students are usually (too) involved in learning to pay attention.
"We do not let things bother us. We have had 26 portables for years with no covered walkways. We just bought umbrellas every year.
"We are a tough group. There is no time to whine here, every minute counts in our children's lives."
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.