The idea sounded great on paper: Take 20 struggling schools, cluster them in their own little district and force them to focus on their shortcomings. That's what Pinellas officials did last fall when they created the "Success Zone," a constellation of high-poverty, high-minority elementary schools that have consistently failed to meet federal standards. Modeled on similar programs in big urban districts, the experiment was heralded as an opportunity to raise student achievement by providing concentrated resources, including tutoring and mentoring, to schools where as many as 88 percent of the kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. But at the end of the first year, the results are mixed.
While two schools showed marked improvement, 12 schools posted reading scores lower than the previous year. Math scores dropped at 10 schools. And with only one exception, the schools failed once again to make "adequate yearly progress" under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Ironically, the one school that did make progress, South Ward Elementary in Clearwater, was one of three schools the district closed in May.
"Obviously, we wanted them to do better," said interim superintendent Julie Janssen. "A lot of energy was spent, but we didn't get the results we expected."
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Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, said zones can turn schools around if they're done right. The zone structure itself is a plus, he said, because it allows struggling schools to short-circuit normal bureaucratic channels and get what they need more quickly.
"It gives the schools additional priority, and that priority is articulated all the way to the top," he said. "They don't get lost in the shuffle."
Successful zones also tend to have "somebody of unusual skill" at the helm, Casserly said.
Former superintendent Clayton Wilcox put veteran administrator Barbara Hires in charge of the Pinellas Success Zone last summer. Hires, who was not available for comment for this story, paid frequent surprise visits to the teachers to make sure they were using the practices the district prescribed to boost learning in high-poverty schools.
While some principals considered the scrutiny an intrusion, others welcomed it.
"A high-performing classroom has certain essentials," said Debi Turner, principal at Blanton Elementary in unincorporated Pinellas. "We're not at all embarrassed to tell people we're very structured."
The structure seems to have paid off for Blanton. The school, with a minority population of 61 percent, showed a 9 percentage-point increase in the number of students reading at grade level or above. Additionally, special education students and those who speak English as a second language made progress under the federal standard.
Clearview Avenue Elementary in St. Petersburg also showed gains, increasing the number of children reading at grade level or above by 14 percentage points. But Tyrone Elementary in St. Petersburg and Sandy Lane Elementary in Clearwater fared less well, slipping 7 and 13 percentage points, respectively.
"It's a very challenging group of schools," said Harry Brown, the district's deputy superintendent in charge of curriculum. "No success of the magnitude that's required in those schools can be done overnight."
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To be fair, the big changes at the schools haven't kicked in yet. Last spring, principals were required by federal law to submit improvement plans tailored to their schools' individual strengths and weaknesses. They'll implement the plans when school starts next month.
Sandy Downes, principal at Eisenhower Elementary in Clearwater, wanted to extend the school day as part of her plan but learned there was no money in the budget for that.
Instead, students will begin each day with 30 minutes of additional reading instruction. Even teachers who normally don't teach reading will get training so they can help, Downes said.
Blanton teachers will open their doors 30 minutes early to any student who needs extra help, said Turner, the principal. The school also will tap teaching interns from the University of South Florida who will work with special-education students and those who speak English as a second language.
"I have this dream of 40, 50 people running around teaching," Turner said.
She added: "I know that's pie in the sky."
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Dreaming big was the idea behind the success zone concept when former New York City schools chancellor Rudy Crew pioneered the idea in 1996. Since then, a handful of urban districts have tried similar projects, including Detroit, Cleveland, San Diego and Charlotte, N.C.
The zone that has gotten the most attention is in Miami-Dade, where Crew is now superintendent. The three-year project was dubbed one of the top 50 innovations in government this year by Harvard University and helped Crew earn the honor of superintendent of the year.
Among other changes, Crew extended the school day by one hour and the school year by 10 days for the 39 schools in the zone. Teachers got a 20 percent pay bump for the extra work.
Despite repeated requests from the St. Petersburg Times, Miami-Dade school officials could not provide information about either the cost or the effectiveness of the zone. But the Miami Herald, which referred to the project as "a $100-million experiment," reported last week that only one zone school earned an A from the state this year, while three others fell from an A to a C.
On the other hand, seven zone schools that earned F's last year moved up to D's and C's.
Pinellas, like Miami-Dade, clearly has work to do. Since this time last year, six more high-poverty schools have failed to meet federal standards for the fourth year in a row. Those schools, along with about a dozen others headed in the same direction, will become part of a larger zone for the coming school year, said Janssen, the interim superintendent.
"We have a large group of schools that we've got to spend lots of time on," Janssen said. "We're not letting up."
It's unclear whether the district will continue to use the designation "Success Zone."
Donna Winchester can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8413. Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873.
|Results in the zone
Percentage of students at schools in the "Success Zone" who were at grade level or above in reading in 2006-07, the year they were placed in the zone, and in 2007-08, after one year of intensive remediation. Most schools in the Pinellas School District's zone last year had failed to meet federal standards for four straight years.
|2. Clearview Ave.||59%||73%||+14|
|5. High Point||66%||64%||-2|
|6. Kings Hwy.||61%||58%||-3|
|8. Lealman Ave.||64%||64%||—|
|11. Pinellas Park||69%||65%||-4|
|12. Rio Vista||67%||62%||-5|
|13. Sandy Lane||67%||54%||-13|
|14. 74th Street||56%||57%||+1|
|15. Shore Acres||79%||78%||-1|
|17. South Ward||64%||68%||+4|
|Source: Florida Department of Education|
|More struggling schools
Schools that continue to struggle that are slated to receive extra help from the district in the coming year:
|21. Azalea||32. Northwest|
|22. Bardmoor||33. Pinellas Central|
|23. Bear Creek||34. Ponce de Leon|
|24. Belcher||35. M.K. Rawlings|
|25. Belleair||36. San Jose|
|26. Campbell Park||37. James B. Sanderlin|
|27. Fairmount Park||38. Sawgrass Lake|
|28. Gulf Beaches||39. John M. Sexton|
|29. Douglas L. Jamerson Jr.||40. Skycrest|
|30. Lynch||41. Westgate|
|31. North Shore|