ST. PETERSBURG — Even those who run Azalea Middle School knew something had to change.
The St. Petersburg school received a C from the state for four years straight. Parent participation is meager. Student suspensions and arrests happen at more than twice the rate of the district average, according to school system figures.
In addition, the school's declining enrollment in recent years suggested that more and more students living in Azalea's school zone were choosing private, charter and magnet schools over their neighborhood campus, administrators said.
So principal Teresa Anderson charged her assistant principal, Larry Balduff, with finding possible solutions for the 2011-12 school year.
"Think outside the box, Balduff," he remembers her saying.
What they came up with: Adopt the fundamental program within their school zone without going as far as making the program a magnet school open to everyone in the county.
Fundamentals require stricter student discipline and parent participation.
"We don't know if this is going to work," Balduff said. "We hope and pray that it does."
Azalea isn't the first school to try this route. Dunedin Highland Middle, Osceola Middle and Largo Middle have all done something similar over the years, with varying results.
Pinellas currently has six elementaries, three middle schools and one high school that are entirely fundamental. But unlike the process required for a school to go 100 percent fundamental, school administrators say the route Azalea chose needed no School Board approval.
"This is not a board-initiated program," said Bill Lawrence, associate superintendent of curriculum and development. "It's completely in-house, a school-within-a-school."
The aim, Balduff said, was to attract the attention of parents in the school zone who are sending their children elsewhere. The school has a 1,500-student capacity, but had only about 1,100.
Right now, the program has enrolled about 87 students and hired seven teachers from within the traditional school.
Balduff said he doesn't expect to turn any interested students away this first year. They would love to enroll 150. He hopes that demand will eventually grow enough to have a waiting list.
In addition to the fundamental option, the school plans to move toward a block schedule in the fall, which means fewer — but longer — classes per day. Administrators hope the schedule results in fewer disciplinary issues during class changes.
Jean Willingham, an advocate for fundamental schools, said she welcomes plans like Azalea's as another option for parents seeking a high-quality education for their children.
This past school year Pinellas parents put in 9,395 applications for fundamental schools, with 44 percent of them listing fundamental schools as their top choice, according to school district figures. That's up from last year's total of 8,450 applications for fundamental slots.
And citing parent demand, Pinellas schools superintendent Julie Janssen in March proposed reopening two closed schools to create more fundamental seats.
Janssen offered the suggestion as an alternative to rezoning elementary schools to deal with crowding. Janssen said reopening Kings Highway Elementary in Clearwater and Gulf Beaches Elementary in St. Pete Beach could ease pressure elsewhere.
In the end, the School Board decided not to consider that idea for now.
The only other departure Azalea's leaders anticipate when comparing their fundamental-like school with true fundamentals is that students and parents who don't comply with the rules can be dismissed from the program but not from the campus.
Melissa Harris is one parent who now feels much better about her son's prospects in the coming year.
Harris had reluctantly enrolled her son at Azalea, his zoned school, after missing the deadline to sign him up at a fundamental middle school.
The oversight promised a big change for 12-year-old Matthew Mañon after four years at Lakeview Fundamental Elementary.
When Harris received a letter announcing the change at Azalea Middle, she didn't hesitate to sign Matthew up.
"I jumped at that," she said.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or [email protected]