ST. PETERSBURG — Fairmount Park Elementary opened school this week with bad news and good news.
Bad news: The school plummeted from a C to an F.
Good news: The 560-student campus has launched a pilot program to help children from low-income homes succeed by eliminating the obstacles their parents face when they try to be involved in their kids' education.
Modeled after the Harlem Children's Zone in New York City, Fairmount Park's Children's Initiative is a partnership between the Pinellas County School District, the city of St. Petersburg and the Juvenile Welfare Board Children's Services Council.
Organizers believe it has the potential to break cycles of poverty for students in this Childs Park school, where 92 percent of kids are on free and reduced-price lunches.
Lori Matway, a former principal who oversees school programs for the city, said she was impressed with the Harlem Zone's philosophy of doing "whatever it takes" to help a student move to the next level, versus offering blanket services to families that might not need them.
"That really has to be the mind-set," Matway said. "Stop watering it down for all."
Here's more on the new effort at Fairmount Park:
What is the Harlem Children's Zone Project?
A program that began in the early 1990s targeting children and families in one New York City block. The effort focused on providing families with services that could reduce the obstacles poverty presents: failing schools, crumbling housing, violent crime and health issues. The goal was to enable parents to take an active role in their kids' education. By 2001, the project had expanded to 100 blocks serving more than 8,000 children and 6,000 adults. Today, it starts with the Baby College, a series of parent workshops for kids up to age 3.
How is Fairmount adapting the project?
This year, four classes involving 72 kids in prekindergarten to second grade — one class per grade level — are being targeted. Families of those children, selected at random, have signed contracts saying they will be involved in their children's schooling. Parents will attend regular parent training classes, and families will be provided access to free before- and after-school care, health services and more, depending on their specific needs. Two social workers will be assigned to the group. In January, AmeriCorps workers will work one-on-one with the kids in the classrooms, and make home visits.
What role is the JWB and the city playing?
The JWB will work with the district to help identify which of its existing family-centered services might meet a family's needs. For example, if someone needs dental care, the JWB will help. The city of St. Petersburg had already identified Childs Park as an area needing long-term improvement and can offer its parks and recreation programs, for example, to assist.
How is the pilot program being funded?
Right now, existing resources are being used. The partners have applied for federal grant money.
How long is the pilot?
Valerie Brimm, director of strategic partnerships for the district, said the aim is to expand to third grade next year, following the children as they rise from grade to grade. Depending on the success of the program, there is talk of expanding it to Tarpon Springs.
How will we know it is working?
Teachers will measure students' academic performance social skills from year to year. The school also will look at increases in parental and community involvement.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or firstname.lastname@example.org.