ST. PETERSBURG — Two separate school superintendents in Pinellas County fought to close Imagine Charter School in St. Petersburg, citing chronic poor academic performance.
This year, the district won.
But its victory comes with a twist: Imagine, though earning some of the lowest FCAT scores in the state this year, still outperformed some district schools. Many of them are the same schools that Imagine's students are zoned for and would attend this fall if they decide to enter the regular public system.
Imagine outperformed six district schools in third-grade reading, four schools in third-grade math, seven schools in fourth-grade reading and two schools in fourth-grade math.
Its fifth-grade scores, however, were the worst in Pinellas County, where there are about 70 elementary schools.
Imagine's elementary is closed for the 2013-14 school year, while its middle school will stay open. The School Board voted for the closure in February, prompting an appeal by Imagine that was dropped a short time later.
Superintendent Mike Grego defended the decision to close the F-rated charter, saying it wasn't a "knee-jerk reaction." District officials considered five years of student data, he said. Although Imagine's students came from 21 district schools, the largest number were zoned for Lakewood Elementary, a C-rated school, he said.
"I think it's a sound decision," he said.
School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook agreed, saying that Imagine had years to improve and hadn't "improved enough."
She argued that district schools with F grades, such as Melrose Elementary and Maximo Elementary, were doing a better job than Imagine based on individual student data. At Melrose and Maximo, for instance, 61 percent of students made gains in reading last year, compared with 42 percent at Imagine. The gaps were similar in math.
Imagine has struggled, earning three F's and one D in four years. Its performance this year doesn't indicate the 2013 grade will be much better. But the latest FCAT scores, released Friday, paint a concerning picture of what Imagine's students might return to at district schools.
Imagine officials, who couldn't be reached Wednesday, had argued that their students would just wind up at neighborhood schools with similar struggles. This year's numbers suggest they could be right.
Of 243 students in Imagine's elementary school this year, 41 were zoned for C-rated Lakewood, 34 for D-rated Woodlawn Elementary, 33 for D-rated Fairmount Park Elementary, 27 for F-rated Maximo, 25 for C-rated Gulfport Elementary and 17 for D-rated Campbell Park.
Many of the schools, including Lakewood, had devastatingly low scores this year.
Consider Fairmount Park. Of about 2,100 elementary schools in the state with FCAT scores, it scored in the bottom 50 for third-, fourth- and fifth-grade math and reading.
Fairmount's scores were about the same or down in every subject and grade level this year.
Or take Maximo. All of its scores fell except for fourth-grade math and writing, putting that school, too, among the worst in the state. Its ranking in third-grade math: 10th worst in the state.
Of Maximo's third-graders, just 15 percent earned proficient reading scores this year, down 13 points from last year. In the fourth grade, 22 percent were proficient in reading, down 5 points, and in the fifth grade, 25 percent were proficient in reading, down 16 points.
Grego said the district is making changes at many of its troubled schools, moving in new leaders or teachers. He also has introduced a six-week summer program called Summer Bridge to target struggling students. The district has reached out to Imagine's students to attend that program, he said. The district also is offering an extended day program called Promise Time at some of its low-income schools.
"We're creating a different system within those schools," he said.
Cook said she too expects to see a big difference next year in the district's troubled schools.
"We're putting different leadership there. We've been putting additional resources in there. We're looking at decreasing the turnover there," she said.
It's not clear, though, how much change there will be or whether the district can attract and keep high-quality staff members.
Fairmount Park and Maximo both are undergoing state-mandated turnaround plans, which require that a new principal be assigned and that teachers reapply for their jobs. Grego put in a new principal at Fairmount Park but not at Maximo.
Hiring at the schools still is under way for the coming school year, but so far, most of the instructional staff has been rehired. At Fairmount, about 66 percent are returning, while at Maximo, about 59 percent are.
Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8846. Follow her on Twitter @Fitz_ly.