Students come to Bayside High from the streets, from the juvenile justice system and because they were kicked out of their regular schools.
Working in a school like Bayside isn't easy. Yet the staff there is happier as a whole than at any other public high school in Pinellas County. They like and trust their principal. They look forward to coming to work. And they believe their colleagues feel the same way, with 81 percent reporting high morale in the school.
Whatever the secret sauce is at Bayside High, it's good.
It's also good at Perkins Elementary (93 percent), Bauder Elementary (94 percent), Clearwater Fundamental Middle (84 percent), Boca Ciega High (77 percent) and Palm Harbor University High (77 percent).
Every year, Pinellas County Schools measures morale, along with myriad other issues, in a districtwide "climate survey." While the numbers represent only a snapshot in time, they often offer a broad brush look at the system or intriguing results worth a second look. This year, for instance, employees were happier in elementary schools (53 percent) and high schools (57 percent) than in middle schools (36 percent).
School morale, while important, can be tough to explain. The principal plays a role, as do students and parents. District leadership can influence overall happiness. But so can external forces — and Florida educators have faced a barrage of changes in recent years, from tougher academic standards to budget cuts to major adjustments in how teachers are evaluated and paid.
Superintendent Mike Grego said there's a lot of upheaval in education right now. But he added that, in more than 30 years in public education, he's never seen sky-high morale across a district.
In Osceola County, where he was previously superintendent, Grego said he asked teachers about morale and found that outside problems, such as the economy or a spouse losing a job, added stress, even when they were happy to come to work. "It had an effect," he said.
Patricia LaVoy Fuller, principal of Bayside High, said the results can be a "double-edged sword." A principal can be working hard to improve a school, yet get low marks because change is difficult, she said.
Or, she joked, "The 20 people who don't like me might not have responded."
But survey results also can point to serious problems in schools and the district.
Before former superintendent Julie Janssen was fired, for instance, 27 percent of respondents said they had confidence in her leadership. In his first six months on the job, Grego received high marks, with 86 percent reporting confidence in him.
Just more than half of the 4,126 respondents this year reported high morale at their school. But school-by-school results can be as confusing as they are revealing.
At St. Petersburg High, staff members who took the survey gave principal Al Bennett good marks. They thought parents were involved. The vast majority — 96 percent — said they were "satisfied working at this school." Yet only 35 percent of respondents felt morale was high, making St. Petersburg High third lowest among high schools in that category.
Fundamental schools, which require parental involvement and good student behavior, seem like a recipe for high morale. And, in most cases, they are. But Bay Vista Fundamental Elementary had the lowest morale of the fundamentals, with 47 percent. Despite that, 90 percent of respondents said they looked forward to coming to work.
Bay Vista's morale was on par with Melrose Elementary (48 percent), which is on the state's list of the 100 lowest-performing schools. At Melrose, staffers reported that parents weren't supportive or involved and that students behave poorly. Bay Vista had none of those problems.
Woodlawn Elementary, another tough school, had higher morale (60 percent) than both Bay Vista Fundamental and Melrose.
Grego said that's why it's important to have conversations with teachers. Area superintendents have been reviewing all of the results, he said, and "it's a distinct part of the principal's review."
He also would like to see more detailed questions in future climate surveys about working conditions. Morale is an imprecise measure, in some ways, but it's also important, he said.
"Everyone wants to be happy to come to work. I think it makes for a more productive employee," he said.
It's important to have a clear mission and goals, he said.
At Boca Ciega High, principal Michael Vigue said "thoughtful, transparent communication" is key, as is "not giving people a million things to worry about." He also said that as Boca Ciega improved academically, state oversight decreased, possibly lessening the stress on employees.
Although Vigue got high marks from his staff — and Boca Ciega had the second highest morale among high schools — he thought the response rate was more telling. More than 100 people filled out the survey at Boca Ciega, far higher than other high schools.
"They recognize that their opinion matters," he said.
Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at [email protected].