Principals key to change at five struggling Pinellas schools

Pinellas Park Middle is one of the lowest-performing schools in Pinellas County. Fewer than half of its students read on grade level. Many of its teachers want out. Back-to-back D grades have prompted the state to intervene.

Enter Dave Rosenberger.

The veteran principal of Clearwater Fundamental Middle has just been given one of the toughest jobs in education: to turn around a chronically struggling school. He'll be in the hot seat at Pinellas Park Middle as of June 10. Rosenberger doesn't have every detail worked out yet, but he has a vision.

"I want families to be knocking on my door," he said. "It won't happen overnight, but I guarantee it will happen."

Pinellas Park Middle is one of five struggling schools in the county getting a faculty makeover this summer, courtesy of Florida's accountability system. Three of the schools are getting a new principal, while two will keep their current leaders. Teachers are reapplying for their jobs, and at least one school already is advertising teaching positions for the coming year.

The goal is to improve student performance by changing the school's culture. At high-poverty schools, where students sometimes are years behind their peers academically, the turnaround is an uphill slog.

The principal — preferably a new one — is central to the effort, research shows.

"A key part is signaling a break from the past and a new era in the school. No one is in a better position to do that" than the principal, said Thomas Dee, a professor of education at Stanford University who has studied turnaround schools.

At Pinellas Park Middle, Melrose Elementary and Fairmount Park Elementary, which are getting new principals, that task is a bit easier. A new leader naturally signals a shift, Dee said. Existing principals — such as the ones at Maximo Elementary and Azalea Middle — have to "credibly establish that the school is heading in a new direction."

Besides Rosenberger, the other new principals will be Nanette Grasso at Melrose and Nina Pollauf at Fairmount Park. Maximo principal Randi Latzke will retain her post, as will Azalea principal Connie Kolosey.

In either instance, the same general formula applies, Dee said: The principal needs to provide the faculty with a clear purpose, find advocates among staff members, eliminate distractions from teaching, build a "committed" workforce and share authority with teachers.

"So much of what we see in turnarounds is a 'flood the zone' mentality," Dee said, adding that multiple initiatives can make it difficult to tell what's working.

The risk is high, too, for a quick improvement followed by a backward slide, he said.

If Pinellas has a recent turnaround success story, it might be Boca Ciega High. When principal Michael Vigue started in 2010, the then-D-rated school was on the state's intervention list. Morale was low and teacher turnover was high.

"The school was in pretty rough shape. A lot of people were trying to get away," Vigue said.

But the school earned its first A last year, after getting a C in 2011. Success, he said, comes down to getting — and keeping — the right people. He looks for high energy, organization and enjoyment of children. To get the right fit, he spends a lot of time interviewing candidates.

He tells everyone, "This is what you're signing up for. This is the culture of our school."

Vigue said he'd be shocked if Boca Ciega had a significant drop this year. But, with constantly changing standards, he said you can't be complacent about the A.

When it comes to student achievement, the quality of teachers matters more than any other school-related factor, research shows. High-poverty schools often get hit with a double whammy — students with greater needs but fewer experienced teachers. High teacher turnover, which creates instability, is common.

The five Pinellas turnaround schools already have evidence of churn. At Melrose, which has had back-to-back F grades, 71 percent of the instructional staff requested a transfer this year. At Fairmount Park, a D school, 60 percent did. At Maximo, an F school, 54 percent did.

Bruce Proud, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said teachers at the schools who received a rating of "highly effective" or "effective" on their evaluations should be able to stay, if they want to. But it's not clear yet how many do.

Grasso, who will lead Melrose come June, said a few teachers from her current school, Orange Grove Elementary, have expressed an interest in following her. But she said Melrose teachers "deserve the first interview for everything."

Grasso said getting on track will take a "combination of many things." She will look at staff, at programs, at student data, and reach out to the community. But she hopes to build on the "positive initiatives already in place."

Rosenberger said Pinellas Park Middle already has a "hardworking and dedicated" administrative team. As an outsider at the school, he hopes to bring a different perspective and some new energy.

But, "I also know that the job is tireless," he said.

Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at cfitzpatrick@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8846. ollow her on Twitter @Fitz_ly.

Principals key to change at five struggling Pinellas schools 05/12/13 [Last modified: Sunday, May 12, 2013 8:17pm]

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