At eight of the lowest performing schools in Pinellas County, district officials see promising signs: academic growth, reductions in suspensions and discipline referrals, better teaching and improved attendance.
The question is whether the improvements will translate into stronger academic performance and higher test scores.
"We're seeing continued growth in these schools, which gives us hope," Dan Evans, the district's head of accountability and research, said this week during a community meeting in south St. Petersburg, where six of the eight schools are located. Two other schools are in Clearwater.
The school district created the "Transformation Zone" last year, providing the schools with an influx of resources, including a leadership team to provide training and support, help recruit and train teachers, and oversee improvement efforts.
The district and the teachers union also agreed to increase pay incentives for teachers — up to $25,000 a year for the most experienced teachers who perform extra duties. They also added time to the school day.
District officials also took some employees in January from the Pinellas zone to visit a school-improvement zone in Memphis, which has been credited with improving schools and closing achievement gaps between black and white students.
Goliath Davis, former police chief and deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, said he heard from teachers who came back from the trip feeling like, "It's not the kids. It's our approach to the kids."
He said, "I thought that was very profound because we've talked about that for a very long time."
According to a draft of a midyear evaluation of the zone completed by Evans' office, more than half of teachers surveyed in the schools said the bonus pay motivated them to work in the schools. A similar percentage said it might encourage them to stay.
Five of the eight schools have had fewer than five teachers leave this year. Maximo lost six, while Fairmount Park lost seven and Melrose lost eight, according to the report. Some teachers have been forced to resign.
Most teachers also were happy with the addition of classroom aides.
Discipline referrals and suspensions are down — which could be the result of a combination of factors, such as better student behavior, a change in the attitudes of school employees toward students, and a change in district policy that decreased the total number of days students can be kicked out of school.
"When you have better instruction, tighter instructional model, with less time for kids to be off task, and kids are more in tuned to the lesson, all of that leads to less behavior," Evans said.
Lewis Brinson, the district's new minority achievement officer, said if suspensions and discipline referrals are down then the schools should soon see an increase in academic performance. It can't be that schools stop disciplining students to keep numbers artificially low.
"It does us no good to keep kids in school and not teach them," he said.
Evans gave an overview of his report, which was still being finished, this week to the Concerned Organization for Quality Education of Black Students. The report is a "checkpoint" to assess what's working and what's not working in the zone.
The zone includes: Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose elementary schools, and Midtown Academy, all in St. Petersburg, and Sandy Lane and High Point elementary schools in Clearwater. Not all schools receive the same level of support.
Of the schools, D-rated High Point had the highest performance and growth on internal tests. Melrose, an F school, also had "high levels" of growth in reading and math. Maximo, which jumped to a C last year from an F, has continued to make "impressive" strides, Evans said.