It was the F school. The one with the bad kids and the vandalism and the teachers lining up to leave. ¶ Two years ago, Gibbs High in St. Petersburg hit rock bottom, becoming the first Pinellas high school to earn an F. But if recent FCAT scores and graduation rates are any indication, Gibbs is finally getting some traction. In December, it shed its F for a C, and but for a glitch, would have earned a B. Its graduation rate rose 9 percent last year, and in each of the last two years, it has made some of the district's biggest FCAT gains.
Superintendent Julie Janssen tasked principal Kevin Gordon with turning the school around. He began work on July 1, 2009 — about two weeks before the F. He spoke with the St. Petersburg Times about Gibbs' progress and challenges still ahead.
What's the biggest difference between the Gibbs of 2009 and the Gibbs of 2011?
We're not an F. Superficially, what you can see from the outside, that is the biggest difference. Beyond that, the culture of the school is so different.
Tell me more about that.
There's order. Which I told you last time, the teachers had said discipline was the No. 1 thing that needed to be addressed. And we did. And it didn't take very long for that to happen. So, after that happened, we began to address instruction, really looking at what teachers are doing in the classroom. Of course, that takes longer to really change that culture of having higher expectations for kids, and really wanting to up the rigor of the instruction. In two years, we've done that.
If you could single out one thing that helped change the culture, what would you point to?
I don't know if I could pinpoint one thing. People would tell you that leadership makes the difference. Having a vision. Being able to communicate that. Then being able to get people to go along with you. I think we were able to do that collectively. Our 'one band, one sound' mantra. The first year, the mantra for the kids was you're here to get a good education and a high school diploma. … We took an approach … where an administrator and a guidance counselor are attached to a cohort of kids.
That's different from what it was before?
It's a different look at it. … They're going to track attendance, they're going to track grades, they're going to track discipline. … And if, through monitoring, we see a student beginning to get off track, we begin looking at what types of interventions we can put into place. The benefit for the kid is that they have a constant in their administrator and their counselor. They build that relationship not one year, but over four years.
How much of a difference did the state make? (Gibbs was put under state oversight in 2009.)
I think the state was a big help to us. To really start putting in a sound instructional delivery model and then to have them behind us, to help push, (to say) okay, these are the things you need to be working on. …
So could you have done this without the state?
I say the state was a pretty key part.
How much difference did having extra time make? (Gibbs lengthened its school day last fall.)
On the surface, it ended up only looking like 30 minutes. But, with going to the block schedule, you gained some time from passing, so it almost ended up being an extra hour of instruction that we gained. And when you start looking at some of the data, for math in particular, but when you also start looking at the reading gains, and start looking at some of the gains we made, a lot of that has to do with the extra time.
Over the past 10 years, the percent of students reading at grade level at Gibbs has ranged from 31 to 36 and the percentage of black students reading at grade level was 15 percent this year. What do those numbers tell you?
It tells me we still have a lot of work to do.
Last year, Gibbs had 35 teachers request transfers. That's several years in a row the school was at the top or close to the top in transfer requests. What does it say?
It was a mix. Of voluntary and involuntary. I think that number was probably closer to 40 or 50 that first year. The second year we had 35 that put in requests. But there are some teachers in that number who put in a request every year. … Some people do that because of the uncertainty of what's been happening with education. They just want to, if something bad is going to happen, (say) "I've got my name in and that gives me some options."
Do you have everything you need to get where you want Gibbs to be?
We finally got wireless throughout the whole school. The smart boards are going in. … I like the instant responders. Where the teacher can electronically do a question, a survey, something tied to the lesson. And the kids will have these instant responders and they respond to it right there from the seat. And it electronically tallies and gives you instant statistics. … That's part of the next phase of technology to roll out for the school.
What about parental involvement?
You could always use more parental involvement. … We do have parents who come to school. We do have parents who come to conferences. We do have parents who come to sporting events and other school functions. We do have all of that. Now, is it where we'd like to be? No. But we do have involved parents. I think the thing about involved parents for children in poverty is they have to work, and sometimes they have to work multiple jobs. So sometimes that parent involvement looks like making sure they get to school every day.
Reach Ron Matus at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.