ST. PETERSBURG — Renee Feinman got the news in a text from a fellow teacher:
We work in an F school.
Feinman, a biology teacher at Gibbs High in St. Petersburg, wasn't surprised. The Pinellas school has struggled for years. But the F still stung.
"There's a lot of really good teachers, a lot of really good students, a lot of really good programs," said Feinman Friday. Her two children graduated from Gibbs and she drives from Clearwater to teach there. "But the F will overshadow all those good things."
Pinellas learned that had its first F high school on Thursday with the release of letter grades based on this year's Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. In all, 10 high schools dropped a letter grade. The number of D schools increased from six to nine.
Red flags signaling problems at Gibbs have been flying for years, said Ray Tampa, president of the St. Petersburg branch of the NAACP.
The letter grade is simply the predictable result of a long, slow decline at a school that once was a point of pride in St. Petersburg's African-American community, he said.
"As a community, we should be outraged," Tampa said. "We should be marching in the streets like they're doing over in Iran."
He puts the blame squarely on the shoulders of the School Board.
"They need to start asking more questions and stop allowing some of these things to fester and keep going on and on and on," he said.
Sami Scott, who transferred her daughter from Gibbs to St. Petersburg High in January, says the problems go much deeper. Everyone has failed the school, Scott said. The community shrugs. District administrators feel no pressure to make the necessary changes.
"They're not focused on their kids and their education," Scott said. "They're not involved."
Some have high hopes that Gibbs' new principal can turn things around.
District officials say believe that Kevin Gordon, a 21-year veteran of Pinellas schools who spent the last four years as principal at High Point Elementary in Clearwater, can get Gibbs back on track. They've pledged to give Gordon, 45, whatever he needs, including more bodies in the classroom, to ensure his success.
"We've got work to do, but this is an opportunity for us to move up," Gordon said.
He replaces Antelia Campbell, who became principal in 2006. It was her first time as a principal. Earlier this month district officials selected Campbell as Largo Middle School's new principal.
Several Gibbs teachers expressed cautious optimism Friday that a change in leadership, along with more resources, will be a good first step. But discipline must be at the top of the priority list or nothing will change, said Johnie Long, a teacher in Gibbs' business magnet.
"We felt this last year that kids were controlling the school," Long said. "They don't care if they get suspended or not. Someone needs to come up with consequences that will affect them."
Valerie Santos, a guidance counselor with a case load of 480 students, agreed that discipline has become a serious issue at Gibbs, especially as the district continues to assign students to schools close to home.
"There's so much neighborhood stuff going on," said Santos, who has worked at the school for nine years. "It's hard for the kids to focus on education when they're at each other's throats."
Gordon says those types of challenges go with the territory of leading a large urban high school. The specific plan for how the school will improve is still being finalized, he said.
So how does he feel about beginning a job at a school the state of Florida has branded with an F?
"I think the focus will be on staying positive and working together as a team," Gordon said.
Feinman, the biology teacher, wants to believe the scarlet letter could have a silver lining.
The F will be "an impetus to turn it around," she said. "It'll be a new beginning."