Sunday, January 21, 2018
Education

Race is on to add support to five struggling elementary schools

Blink and you might have missed it.

After one phone call and a single meeting last month, Pinellas County schools superintendent Mike Grego decided to expand a promising pilot program to five struggling schools for the 2014-15 school year.

It started with 137 students at Fairmount Park Elementary. Now, with the year under way, district officials are working fast to "scale up" the Children's Initiative to all students at Fairmount Park, Campbell Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose elementaries — five Pinellas schools that rank among the worst in the state.

It's no small task.

Just one aspect of the program — putting an aide in every class to function as a second teacher — will take months and cost about $4 million, said deputy superintendent Bill Corbett. That cost wasn't known when Grego announced the plan.

District officials hope to have the aides in place in fourth and fifth grades by the end of the month, Corbett said.

Each school also will have a psychologist, a social worker and a mental health counselor. Two extra mental health counselors will float between the schools.

In many ways, the quick decisionmaking — without cost estimates — is a hallmark of Grego's style as superintendent. In his first two years on the job, he has moved fast to make big changes.

He announced a plan to create a six-week summer school called Summer Bridge just months before it started and without a firm price tag. Similarly, he expanded before- and after-school programs, which according to some early analysis by the district, appear to be helping students make gains on standardized tests.

Before he decided to expand the Children's Initiative, Grego talked to Marcie Biddleman, executive director of the Juvenile Welfare Board, who told him about encouraging results among the 137 students at Fairmount Park.

Although most students in the pilot program failed the FCAT, they fared better than their counterparts in the rest of the school. For example, 14 percent of fourth-graders in Initiative classrooms were proficient in reading, compared with 2 percent in non-Initiative classrooms, according to JWB data. Students in the pilot program also had fewer discipline problems.

Some aspects of the Children's Initiative will be difficult, if not impossible, to replicate in all five schools. Parents can be encouraged to attend meetings, but not required as they were in the pilot program.

Other parts of the program already exist in the schools. Most have social workers and psychologists on staff. Plans to improve behavior were in place, but with high turnover among teachers, extra training will be needed, Corbett said.

The extra mental health counselors will be supplied by the JWB, which ran and evaluated the pilot program at Fairmount Park.

Robert Ovalle, principal of Campbell Park Elementary, said he was excited about the plan. He said he was happy to see additional training for teachers and extra resources for children, some of whom come with "so many social and emotional needs." That can be overwhelming for one social worker in a school with more than 500 students.

With the new program, several people will be addressing some of those extra needs and making home visits.

Students also could benefit from smaller class sizes. Each classroom aide will be viewed as a co-teacher, not someone to grade papers or do clerical work.

"We're cutting the student-to-teacher ratio in half," Ovalle said, adding that training will help foster the relationship between teacher and classroom aide.

Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at [email protected] Follow @fitz_ly.

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