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At St. Petersburg middle school, academics again instead of anarchy

ST. PETERSBURG — Its students logged 100 arrests. Its teachers begged for help. By many accounts last year, John Hopkins Middle School was a bad, bad school. Synonymous with fights and the whiff of pepper spray. A poster child for chaos.

But by many accounts this year, Hopkins is a better place. Student fights: down. Teacher morale: up. Parents: relieved.

Rosa Robinson is the Hopkins parent who challenged superintendent Julie Janssen last March when Janssen said the school's problems had been "so blown out of proportion."

Robinson's response then: "It's been rough, okay?"

Her take on it now? "It's been pretty peaceful … you can walk the hallway and feel the difference," said Robinson, who chairs the school advisory council and has a seventh-grader in the arts magnet. "Before, forget about it. It was running around and craziness. Now it's like, 'Wow.' "

Still, no one is high-fiving a turnaround. At least not yet.

• • •

There are reasons for caution.

Hopkins is an island in a sea of tough neighborhoods. Even when everybody on campus does everything right, bad things can wash ashore. Just last week, two Hopkins mothers drew a huge crowd when they squared off to fight across the street.

Then there's this: Discipline is more of a challenge in the spring, when students start smelling summer. And finally, this: Parents once flocked to Hopkins' award-winning magnets in arts and journalism, but application numbers have tanked. Even if the school is on an even keel again, will they come back?

Nobody at Hopkins wants to boast too much — and jinx a school that saw its good reputation flushed in weeks. "I don't want the praise to be premature," said new principal Barry Brown.

He'd prefer to gauge progress at the end of the year. But at the halfway point, this much is true: Teachers, students and parents all say things are looking up.

"I haven't had to deal with in-class disruptions at nearly the level I had to last year," said geography teacher Steve Frump.

Expectations for student behavior have been made clear — repeated in morning announcements, spelled out in classroom posters. Consequences are swift and consistent.

The district shipped a handful of "chronically disruptive" kids to alternative schools last spring. Another handful were sent to other schools last fall.

Teachers credit the new leadership team for backing them when students go off. "They've had to endure a lot," Brown said.

Hopkins and its 1,000 students won't get their good name back in a snap.

The district's return to neighborhood schools has brought more low-income and challenging students into the mix. A supporter last year lamented "psychic damage" from the waves of negative publicity.

But there is hope that Hopkins can again make the public think of the good things that, in truth, never went away: A nationally recognized student newspaper. An orchestra that's as good as they get. Chorus and drama kids who stack up superior ratings.

"Do we have infractions that happen on our campus? Yeah, every middle school does," Brown said. "Have we had fights? Yeah, we've had fights. …

"But are we dealing with those issues … and not losing focus on academics? We are."

• • •

Exhibit A: arrest data.

Police records show Hopkins had 16 arrests through December. Only one incident involved what plagued the school last year — brawls, brawls, brawls — and it occurred at a bus stop.

By contrast, Hopkins had racked up 40 arrests by the holiday break in 2009, on pace to reach 100 by the end of March.

That's not to say the school has morphed into Andover.

One student threatened to kill the campus cop who took a bandanna — potentially a gang sign — from the student's back pocket. Another punched the officer in the face when he tried to stop her from yelling threats at a group of boys.

But Hopkins is far from the only Pinellas school where anomalies like that happen.

Exhibit B: the teachers.

In a recent staff survey, nearly 60 percent rated morale "high" or "good." About 15 percent said "low" or "poor." Thirty percent said "neutral."

This from a staff that fired off a desperate letter to Janssen last March. "We have no control of this school," teacher Orlando Martinez told the St. Petersburg Times back then, unleashing a torrent of demands that the district do something.

Now? "A lot better," he said. "Last year, if you had a problem with a student, it would drag for days or weeks without a solution. That's not the case this year. They take care of it and correct it."

Exhibit C: the students.

The Times asked a dozen how things were going this year. All said the same thing.

"Waaaaay better," said Kenarie Mays, 14. "There's maybe been five fights all year."

"People's attitudes are changing," said Chrisaih Ware, 14.

• • •

The next big test for Hopkins begins Jan. 29, when Pinellas parents start to pick special programs for their kids.

Last year's implosion hit hard. Hopkins had 200 magnet slots for incoming sixth-graders, but filled only about half, said magnet coordinator Michael Vasallo.

Falling numbers forced the school to talk about cutting jobs, he said. Since then, staffers have been hoofing it to fairs, festivals and PTA meetings to show off the kids and their talents and prove there's no dropoff in quality.

Is it do-or-die now?

"To me it is," Vasallo said. "I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders."

District officials vow to stand by the magnets, even if the numbers again fall short. "That is a hallmark program," said Bill Lawrence, an associate superintendent. "If they don't fill it … we'll continue to market and recruit. They'll come back."

But when?

At Tuesday's School Board meeting, a parent objected to a proposed change that would make Hopkins her zoned school. "We've heard lots of terrible things about it," she said.

The response from Hopkins:

"It will be fine," said Robinson, the parent and SAC chair, "if we keep doing what we're doing."

Times staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

At St. Petersburg middle school, academics again instead of anarchy 01/14/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 14, 2011 11:44pm]

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