Little by little, Pinellas is losing ground to other Florida school districts.
Over the span of a decade, no big district made less progress in reading than Pinellas, and only one, Hillsborough, made less progress in math, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis of FCAT scores in the 12 biggest districts.
Compared to other districts, the trend lines for black students in Pinellas are especially weak. But white and Hispanic students in Pinellas are also dipping further below state averages.
The analysis, which looked at scores from 2001 through 2010, found:
• In math, Pinellas students overall have gone from above the state average to below. In reading, they have dropped from above average — and third among the 12 biggest districts — to average.
• White students, Hispanic students and students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch in Pinellas all fell in rank in both subjects. In five of six of those rankings, they're now in the bottom three big districts.
• Black students fell from No. 9 to No. 12 in reading performance and stayed at No. 12 in math. In both subjects, the gains were smaller than in every other district.
• Pinellas' progress is slower, despite more favorable demographics. Only two big districts have fewer students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch. And only two have fewer minority students.
"We're not seeing the type of progress we expect and the type of progress we're used to," said Gerald Hogan, a semiretired businessman and member of the Pinellas Education Foundation board of directors. "It's completely disappointing."
"Bottom line: It's concerning," said St. Petersburg City Council member Steve Kornell, who is also a school social worker at Dixie Hollins High. "It calls for us to come together as a community and really support our school system."
To be clear, test scores in Pinellas are rising. The district is making progress, just like every big district in Florida. The efforts of the 12 biggest districts — which have two-thirds of the students in the state — are a big reason why Florida has begun to shed its national profile as an academic cellar dweller.
Also to be clear, education researchers urge caution in leaping to strong conclusions. The data are both limited and complicated. And rankings can sometimes suggest bigger gulfs than are truly there.
But even with those caveats, the analysis "absolutely raises questions," said Matthew Chingos, an education researcher at the Brookings Institution who reviewed the data. "If you have two places that are very similar demographically … but the results are different, it begs the question: What is one district doing differently?"
The Times presented the data to district and community leaders for review. District officials did not dispute that Pinellas has lost a step or two.
"I don't like it that we're not making the same progress as everybody else," said superintendent John Stewart. "I want to be a leader in everything we do. We haven't been."
• • •
Pinellas has legions of highly skilled teachers. It has strong support from the business community. It has plenty of satisfied parents whose kids are getting a good education. The sky is not falling.
But something is off.
The Times analysis shows sometimes considerable gaps between districts making the most progress and those, like Pinellas, making the least.
In some cases, it doesn't appear that the usual suspects, poverty and race, are the issue.
In 2001, 21 percent of black third-graders in Palm Beach County were doing math at grade level or above, compared to 24 percent of their peers in Pinellas. By 2010, the Pinellas rate had doubled to 48 percent.
That is an impressive leap. "The effort for that progress has to be applauded," said former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker.
But, others say, it should also be put in context.
Over the same time span, the third-grade proficiency rate for black students in Palm Beach County tripled to 65 percent.
The percentage of black students eligible for free- and reduced-price lunch is roughly the same in Palm Beach and Pinellas (77 and 80 percent, respectively). But Palm Beach has a higher percentage of black students (29 percent to Pinellas' 19 percent).
Here's another example, this one involving all student groups: In 2001, 42 percent of third-graders in Miami-Dade were scoring at grade level or above in math, well below the 54 percent in Pinellas, which has a far lower rate of high-poverty kids. But by 2010, Miami-Dade's third-graders had passed those in Pinellas, 78 percent to 74 percent.
Until now, the poor performance of black students in Pinellas — the district's biggest minority group — has been most under scrutiny. But to some observers, the fact that other students are not getting as much traction either should force a broader debate.
The Times analysis is "a game changer," said Ray Tampa, a former Pinellas principal and former president of the St. Petersburg NAACP. It shows "we have a major problem … and it's not just with black students."
• • •
A school district's reputation is a curious thing, a word cloud of spin and substance.
Hillsborough is the risk taker.
Superintendent MaryEllen Elia rolled the dice on big changes that have drawn a flattering national spotlight. A dive in the deep end with Bill Gates on teacher evaluations. A push to make Advanced Placement classes the new normal in high school. Flop or not, Hillsborough can say it wasn't afraid to think big.
Miami-Dade is full of swagger.
Last year, superintendent Alberto Carvalho told lawmakers that his gigantic district — the one with the highest concentration of poor and minority kids of any big district in Florida — is the "highest-performing urban school district in America." PolitiFact, the Tampa Bay Times fact-checking site, rated Carvalho's statement half true. But it also acknowledged that some of Miami-Dade's stats really are pretty good.
Then there's Pinellas.
For years, it was the outlier, a self-assured district in backward Floriduh that cultivated a progressive streak. At national education conferences, audiences perked up when Team Pinellas hit the stage.
"We got an absolute standing ovation," recalled School Board member and retired principal Terry Krassner. Attendees saw Pinellas' approach (in this case, how it tracked student data) as "top notch and something they wanted to steal."
People aren't cheering the way they used to.
From 1972 to 2004, the district had three superintendents; it has had three since. Graduation rates are among the lowest for big districts (once loopholes are factored out). And the district has nearly as many schools on Florida's most-struggling list as Miami-Dade, a district three times as big.
To top it off, a surge of bad publicity over leadership washed up a less flattering label: distracted.
The uneven tenure of former superintendent Clayton Wilcox and sputtering term of successor Julie Janssen may or may not have anything to do with Pinellas' trend lines. But they helped cement an impression that the district isn't clicking.
• • •
It's impossible to say what, exactly, may be knocking Pinellas off stride. But the district has endured gale-force drags in the past decade that many other big districts did not — or at least didn't have to all at once.
Student assignment — which kids go where — has been a whirlwind.
To ease away from court-ordered desegregation, Pinellas launched a "controlled choice" plan in 2003 that reshuffled where thousands of students attend school. Overnight, old assignment patterns and school cultures were shaken like snow globes. Five years later, the district shook things up again when it returned to neighborhood schools. Gone were the caps that limited the percentage of black students at any one school. In their place were schools with even more intense knots of poor kids.
The district also closed nine schools and consolidated four more. It increased seats in fundamental schools from 2,500 to 7,000. It will have 21 charter schools this fall, up from six in 2008.
It's pretty basic: Stability matters, said Denise Miller, principal of Sanderlin IB World School in St. Petersburg. When students move from school to school, they don't build the strong relationships with educators that are vital to learning.
"They start getting a little edge to them," Miller said. They think, " 'Why should I build a relationship with you? Because who knows how this is going to end.' "
Money problems contributed, too.
With state money drying up, every district has had to butcher its budget. But with enrollment declining faster, Pinellas has cut proportionally deeper than other big districts: $168 million in the past six years (counting dips into reserves).
For students in resegregated schools, the timing was especially bad. District officials promised to cushion the blow with more staffers, more programs, smaller classes. But critics say that as the district wrestled with budget cuts, promises faded.
"No one made it a priority," Lew Williams, the late School Board member, said in one of his last interviews last fall.
• • •
Presented with the Times data, Pinellas district officials mostly declined to speculate about explanations.
"I think you need to do a little bit of the autopsy so you're not making the same mistakes," said School Board member Janet Clark, "but I don't think we need to get lost in doing that."
The public's perception of the district is particularly important now.
Voters will decide this year whether they want to renew a property tax hike that generates at least $30 million a year for schools. There are also four School Board seats up for grabs — three of them held by incumbents.
Everyone knows, though, that the story in the data goes beyond elections. Behind every few percentage points are hundreds if not thousands of students.
"We're talking about lives," said Tarpon Springs Mayor David Archie, who reviewed the data and called the trends "disheartening." "Things are getting better, but are they getting better fast enough? I would encourage the district and everybody else to take a closer look at what's happening."
District officials say they're doing just that. They say things are getting back on track.
New superintendent Stewart has a good reputation as a "steady Eddie," said Kathleen Shanahan, who chairs the state Board of Education. Behind a disarming demeanor, he quickly restored order to communications and decisionmaking and put district finances under scrutiny. He has also offered tantalizing ideas about where the district may be headed, including an effort — still in planning stages — to better prepare children for school long before they set foot in a classroom.
Krassner, the School Board member, said it is both "devastating" and motivating to see that Pinellas is no longer a leader.
"I want to make sure it's Pinellas out front again," she said. "I want to make sure we're kicking everybody's rear end."
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.