Pinellas County schools that don't make the grade reshape the staff

Chemistry teacher Dana Jarvis greets students as they enter her classroom at Lakewood High in St. Petersburg on Thursday. The second-year teacher says, “You’re going to work harder for them. And in turn, they’re going to work harder for you.”

DIRK SHADD | Times

Chemistry teacher Dana Jarvis greets students as they enter her classroom at Lakewood High in St. Petersburg on Thursday. The second-year teacher says, “You’re going to work harder for them. And in turn, they’re going to work harder for you.”

In less than two years, Bob Vicari, principal at Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg, has seen nearly a third of his teachers leave, the kind of fast-spinning, revolving door that would usually be a sign of distress.

But Vicari likes what's going on. Thanks to the state, he now has a level of influence over staffing that most principals can only dream of. And he's used it to expedite the forced transfer of a dozen teachers, nudge a half-dozen others to leave voluntarily and recruit a platoon of high-energy rookies.

The result, he said: a teaching staff that's as good as he's ever had.

"It's all about the people you have in front of students," said Vicari, a blunt-talking, 10-year principal who took the helm at Lakewood last year.

This is the new frontier of school reform in Florida.

Schools that tumble far enough to be mandated for state oversight are given the power to do something so radical, it may have kept them falling so far in the first place: freshen up their teaching corps. New rules that kicked in two years ago say such schools can no longer keep unsatisfactory teachers. They allow state and district officials to jointly determine who should stay or go.

To be sure, there are tradeoffs. Teachers who are "involuntarily" transferred end up at other schools. Their slots are often filled by rookies, promising but unproven.

But the requirements are a nod to reams of evidence that show teacher quality matters more to student achievement than any other in-school factor, and that less-effective teachers are likely to be more concentrated in high-poverty schools. They also take aim at long-entrenched district policies and practices that can make it a slog for principals to fire or remove teachers who aren't cutting it.

"There has to be the willingness to do so," said Fred Heid, who heads the school improvement office at the state Department of Education.

Sometimes districts are constrained by contracts with teachers unions. Sometimes it's school board policy. Sometimes it's tradition. For whatever reason, Heid said, until the new accountability rules, "districts did not have the oversight that mandates these kinds of things."

Statewide, more than 140 schools are in the dire categories that allow them to shake up their staffs. In Pinellas, there are 10.

Lakewood was put on a state list of most struggling schools in spring 2010, after five D's in a row and unflattering test score data. It has since improved to a C.

The other schools in the same fix are Gibbs, Boca Ciega and Dixie Hollins high schools; Azalea Middle School; Melrose, Maximo, Lakewood and Fairmount Park elementary schools; and the Imagine charter school. All but Dixie are in St. Petersburg.

The extent of the shakeup varies from school to school.

In some cases, teachers may be moved even though formal evaluations haven't dubbed them ineffective or unsatisfactory, Heid said. It may depend on what the trend data show with student performance.

Principals like the extra authority.

"A principal always wants the opportunity to shape their staffs, no doubt about it," said Dixie principal Dan Evans. "We view ourselves as CEOs of the school and want to make decisions we feel will be best for the school."

At Boca Ciega, principal Michael Vigue said more than 50 teachers have left in two years due to retirements, resignations and transfers. Coincidentally or not, the school led all Pinellas high schools this year in Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test gains.

The change in teachers has made a "huge difference," Vigue said. "We're off to a great start."

It's unclear whether one school's gain becomes another school's burden. According to district data, 12 teachers were involuntarily transferred from Lakewood in the past two years, up from three in the two years before that. It's not clear where they landed. The district could not provide that information last week in response to a request submitted Sept. 12.

"My view on this matter is that we do not transfer ineffective teachers from one building to another," Ron Ciranna, assistant superintendent for human resources, said in an e-mail. "The principal is to do whatever it takes to provide the necessary support to bring those teachers in need of improving their skill set up to the level of being a highly effective teacher. If the teacher cannot perform to the highest levels for our students, then the principal has the means to not renew their contract."

Under a federal grant, Lakewood teachers earn an extra $1,000 a year. Vicari said he wishes he could offer bigger financial incentives to lure veteran teachers with successful track records.

But he also said there is lots of upside with the young teachers at Lakewood, many of whom he personally recruited, some from out of state. The school has about 20 first- and second-year teachers.

"They're moldable, they're open to new ideas," agreed assistant principal Peter Oberg. "That's a lot."

Megan Geidner, 27, a second-year biology teacher, said she could have started her career at other schools, including some that weren't high poverty. But "I like the atmosphere, I like the challenge," she said. "Call me crazy."

"I have no plans of leaving," said Dana Jarvis, 23, a second-year chemistry teacher. What she finds special at a high-needs school, she said, is the relationships teachers build with students: "You're going to work harder for them. And in turn, they're going to work harder for you."

It remains to be seen whether Lakewood grows a more stable and effective teaching corps in the long run, and how much the recent changes rub off on student performance.

Vicari said it's up to him to sustain the positive vibe.

Among other changes, he said he's making sure the young teachers get more of the perks and leadership opportunities that used to hinge on seniority. They're not burdened with too many of the toughest classes and toughest kids. Some are teaching Advanced Placement classes. One now chairs a department.

"My job is to make sure the climate stays the way it is," Vicari said. "If you don't have the great instructional staff, you're pretty much dead in the water."

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Pinellas County schools that don't make the grade reshape the staff 09/18/11 [Last modified: Sunday, September 18, 2011 12:54am]

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