Walkie-talkie in hand, the principal directs traffic like a cop at a crash scene. It's minutes before the first bell at Azalea Middle School in St. Petersburg, and 1,000 kids are coursing through the courtyard.
"All right, ladies."
"Where are you supposed to be?"
At Pinellas County's toughest middle school, this is how new principal Connie Kolosey, 55, starts her day. Willing kids in the right direction. Hoping order begets order.
A minute after the bell, the school is quiet enough to hear an airplane drone. Kolosey makes reference to public perception as she gestures around her.
"Does this look like chaos to you?"
• • •
There may be peace in the courtyard, but Azalea Middle is in trouble.
When a new state law gave Azalea parents the chance to transfer their kids to other schools last month, 113 students — nearly 10 percent of the school's anticipated enrollment — left.
No wonder, critics say: D school. State oversight. The lowest test scores of any middle school in Pinellas.
Azalea hasn't generated the headlines that John Hopkins Middle did in spring 2010 and Pinellas Park Middle did earlier this year. But its discipline problems have been every bit as serious; its academic problems, arguably more so.
Azalea ranked second among Pinellas middle schools last year in out-of-school suspensions, a third of its students suspended at least once. It ranked fourth among all schools in arrests, with 46. Meanwhile, 47 percent of its students were reading at grade level, 38 percent were doing so in math, and both numbers were going down.
"Obviously, that's where we need to focus," said Fred Heid, who heads the school improvement office at the state Department of Education, which will be playing a big role at Azalea this year.
Azalea also has Pinellas County's highest percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch at 83. And it's the only one in "intervene," the most dire category in the state's accountability system.
Behind the numbers and labels, it's easy to find frustrated parents.
David Kirby's oldest son, who left Azalea for high school last year, constantly carried home stories about fights and foolishness. Kirby's youngest was supposed to start at Azalea this year, but is instead attending Madeira Beach Fundamental School.
"Can you believe this?" Kirby wrote sarcastically about the difference between Madeira and Azalea. "They actually have kids attending that wear their clothes in the proper places. No food fights or rumbles before and between classes."
• • •
The district turned to Kolosey after transferring former principal Teresa Anderson to Morgan Fitzgerald Middle. Kolosey was the district's secondary reading supervisor for the past five years. She was an assistant principal at Azalea for six years before that.
The supervisor job gave her solid grounding in how to boost literacy. And a preview of how state oversight, which she helped carry out at four Pinellas high schools, will work at Azalea.
The assistant principal job, meanwhile, gave her a lot of personal connections at the school that remain intact despite Azalea's high turnover.
"I'm not walking in and starting from scratch," she said.
Azalea is Kolosey's first stint as principal. But she said she always wanted to lead the school. And she's undeterred by its challenges. After a reporter listed the knocks against the school, she waved her hand as if shooing a fly.
"Pfff," she said, smiling. Then, seriously, "I cannot envision that we cannot make it better.
"I'm shooting for an A (next year)," she said. "I'll be thrilled with a B. I'll be disappointed if it's a C. And I'll have failed if we're a D."
Some changes were under way before Kolosey took the helm. Under Anderson, Azalea started a fundamental-school-like program called Renaissance that began this fall with about 100 students. So far, parents like what they see.
"They want more structure and more parent involvement," said Gabriela Stefan, whose sixth-grader is in the program. "That's a good thing."
A new bell and class schedule has also kicked in. Students switch classes fewer times and have less time to get from one to another.
"Three or four less opportunities (every day) to go running around screaming," Kolosey said.
• • •
Under the state accountability system, Kolosey essentially has two years to make good progress. Heid said it's doable.
The state will be helping.
A Department of Education team will meet with school and district officials this month to sift through data, inspect the nuts and bolts of teaching and fashion an action plan. It'll return every month to gauge progress.
"I've seen miracles happen" at other schools under state oversight, Heid said. "It's commitment and follow through."
Kolosey said she's encouraged by the traction Gibbs High has been getting, and more recently, Boca Ciega and Dixie Hollins high schools. All three schools, all under state oversight, were among district leaders in test score gains this year.
Kolosey also said the current crop of Azalea students seems "nicer" than the one she left in 2006, when the school earned a B.
"There's that constant, 'Oh, this is the worst yet,' " Kolosey said. "Well, pffff."
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.