Thursday, April 19, 2018
Education

Pinellas plans to expand Children's Initiative in troubled schools

The picture has long been bleak at Fairmount Park Elementary, a squat campus painted white in the heart of Midtown St. Petersburg. It is one thing to be an F school; it is another thing to be Fairmount Park, where so few students can pass reading tests that the state education department recently named it the second-worst school in Florida.

So it may surprise some that Pinellas school officials say there is a success story hidden within the chronically failing school — lessons that will now be applied to five low-achieving elementary schools in St. Petersburg.

Superintendent Mike Grego says he is planning to expand a small program at Fairmount Park that borrows some elements from fundamental schools. In addition to connecting students living in poverty with social services, the Children's Initiative required parents to attend monthly meetings.

Contained to a few classrooms for the past four years, the Initiative will soon affect all students at Fairmount Park, Campbell Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose elementaries — the five Pinellas schools that ranked among the worst 25 in the state.

While a large portion of the 137 students who took part in the initiative still posted failing test scores, these children consistently fared better than their non-Initiative counterparts.

Grego said he does not know what the cost of the program will be, though he acknowledged it could be expensive. He said he wants the Initiative up and running on the five campuses this school year, which kicks off Monday.

"We want to be bold, and do the right thing," Grego told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board and reporters last week.

The test program has run for the past four years and involved students in prekindergarten through fifth grade at Fairmount Park. The best teachers were hand-picked by Valerie Brimm, director of strategic partnerships, while parents had to sign on to have their children in special Initiative classrooms.

The focus is on math, reading and discipline, says Marcie Biddleman, executive director of the Juvenile Welfare Board, the nonprofit that ran the test program and supplied about $200,000 a year for it. The program is based on the popular Harlem's Children Zone project in New York.

Biddleman dubbed the effort "a back to basics approach."

Each Initiative classroom had an extra teaching assistant to manage student behavior, while social workers visited Initiative students' homes 2,300 times in the four years.

Through the JWB, and then nonprofit Family Resources, dollars flowed to pay the electricity bills of students' families, and clothe and feed the children when their parents couldn't. These children were also provided a special before- and after-care program.

And results compiled last week indicate that the Children's Initiative has moved the needle for Fairmount Park students.

Thirty-seven percent of third-grade students in the Initiative classrooms passed the reading portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test this spring, compared to 12 percent of those in the non-Initiative classrooms.

The same pattern bears across fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms, and for the math portion of the FCAT as well. Discipline rates also appeared lower for students in the special program.

But the majority of Initiative students — even those who had been in these special classrooms since prekindergarten — still failed the FCAT.

Among fourth-grade students in the program, for instance, 77 percent failed the reading test and 82 percent failed the math test.

"This is not miracle work," Biddleman says. "This is slow, steady improvement."

Some details remain to be sorted out as Pinellas scales up the small Initiative to schoolwide programs. For instance, in the Initiative's four-year run, 83 percent of families attended the required monthly meetings, a remarkable rate for a school that has struggled with parent engagement.

But families who missed too many meetings were asked to leave the program. Pinellas' highly successful fundamental schools also can kick out children of parents who renege on their responsibilities.

Fairmount Park and the other four neighborhood schools in St. Petersburg could not remove a child from the school.

"We won't have the leverage to kick those kids out," said Brimm, acknowledging that some families wouldn't come to meetings no matter what the school did. "We'll just continue to provide support for those children with the social workers and everything else."

Brimm said there would be no need to cherry-pick teachers and administrators as she did when the program first launched, pointing to state reforms that have shaken up administration and teaching staffs regardless of Pinellas' plans.

The Children's Initiative had a few hiccups in its first years at Fairmount Park. Javontae Wright, the program's supervisor, resigned in 2011 amid an investigation into his handling of financial and enrollment matters.

Grego removed Cooper Dawson, the principal brought in to head the Initiative, when years of poor school grades triggered state-mandated turnaround action in 2013.

Times staff writer Cara Fitzpatrick contributed to this report. Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner @tampabay.com. Follow @lisagartner.

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