Five weeks into his new job, Antonio Burt sat at a tense community meeting. A lawyer announced that the plaintiffs in a 50-year-old federal desegregation lawsuit were going back to court because Pinellas County school leaders had broken their promises to black students.
Called upon to speak, Burt had a message: District leaders need to have "courageous conversations" to fix five failing elementary schools in south St. Petersburg. That means confronting the reasons behind the schools' persistent failure.
"It becomes uncomfortable when you threaten or question the status quo," he said afterward. "But you have to look at what's really a barrier as far as closing the achievement gap."
Burt, 35, was hired in December to oversee reform efforts at Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose elementary schools. In his new role, he will have to tackle school failure on a massive, systemic scale and work with some political and community leaders who seem reluctant to acknowledge the scope of the problem. And he will do it while the plaintiffs in two separate lawsuits, one in federal court and one in state court, try to renew legal action against the School Board for shortchanging black students.
In an interview this month, Burt said that he applied for the job as director of school leadership after following the yearlong Tampa Bay Times investigation "Failure Factories," which showed how the district abandoned integration efforts in 2007 and then failed to follow through with promised resources for schools that became predominantly poor and black. The five schools are failing at rates worse than almost any other schools in Florida.
Burt, who reports directly to superintendent Mike Grego, won't be alone in his work. Grego persuaded the School Board this month to create an eight-person "transformation team" under Burt's leadership. But he also added to Burt's responsibilities. The team now will provide some support to two other F-rated schools, Sandy Lane Elementary and High Point Elementary, both in Clearwater. Burt plans to deliver his recommendations to the School Board next month.
Part of the appeal of turnaround work — dramatically and quickly improving a low-performing school — is going where there is little hope, Burt said.
"To me, I find the greatest thrill in proving what's possible," he said.
• • •
Some new teachers would have walked away.
As a 22-year-old history teacher and football coach at one of the toughest middle schools in Memphis, Burt taught students who often had little guidance at home. He called the cops after he saw one girl slash another with a razor blade. While breaking up another fight, a girl scratched him from his temple to his lip. Once, when he walked into the school office to make copies, he saw a student's mother and aunt attack a school police officer. The officer subdued them with pepper spray before handcuffing them.
Far from daunted, he felt that he had found his calling.
"Feeling that urgency because you know (some students) were going home to raise themselves . . . and just seeing that glimmer in the eye when they felt someone cared," he said. "I thought, 'Well, this is really it for me.' "
Growing up in Sheffield, Ala., Burt was the oldest of three children. His father was absent during his childhood and his mother, a factory worker, often sought work near family in Ohio. He was primarily raised by his grandmother, Dorothy Burt, a strong-willed woman who emphasized hard work and education. Children weren't allowed to sleep in on a Saturday morning. The work began at 7 a.m., he said, whether it was cleaning or cutting the grass.
Because "Granny" preferred neatly dressed boys and girls, Burt still dresses sharply today and often sports a bow tie.
"She was a really no-nonsense person. She didn't allow kids to make excuses," he said.
He did well in school, and when he didn't, there was his grandmother and others in the community to push him. He remembers one seventh-grade teacher, Claire Paige, who pulled him into the hallway for a stern talk after his A slipped to a C.
"She said, 'You need to get back on track,' " he said. "I looked at her like, 'Yes, ma'am.' That really stuck with me."
In high school — the only one in his small town — he saw some of his friends drop out after getting behind in class or having what he views as one-size-fits-all instruction. Many of those friends came from an impoverished area, where the population was predominantly black. He felt the school, which was about 60 percent white and 40 percent black, wasn't reaching many of the students who needed it most.
"When I go back home not a lot of my friends are there. They're in and out of prison," he said. "I saw the cycle first hand."
He enrolled in the University of North Alabama, determined to be the first man in his family to finish college. Others had gone, but dropped out. He thought he might become a teacher and a coach because he loved history and had played football and basketball throughout childhood.
After graduation, he wanted to try a new state and a bigger city, so he moved to Memphis. He was hired as a history teacher at Cypress Middle School. He didn't realize the school was so tough. Nearly three-quarters of the students in the school were overage for their grade.
"A lot of people felt like, 'If you make it at Cypress, you can make it anywhere,' " he said.
After five years of teaching, he decided to move into school leadership. He pursued training through New Leaders, a nonprofit organization that trains people to work as principals in turnaround schools. The program, which has a rigorous four-stage selection process, accepts about 6 percent of applicants each year.
A week before he learned he had been selected for the program, his grandmother died at age 81. He was at her bedside.
"That was more motivation for me because she never got to see that," he said.
When he completed his doctoral dissertation last year at Freed-Hardeman University in Tennessee, he dedicated it to his "Granny" and her "tough love."
• • •
Burt's greatest professional challenge came in 2012, when he was tapped to lead Ford Road Elementary, which was ranked in the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools. He already had established himself as a successful turnaround leader. But this time, he had to make drastic improvements in just one year or face state takeover.
As a principal in Shelby County schools' new Innovation Zone, he had more latitude to make changes. He had control over the curriculum. He had a longer school day. He was required to replace 50 percent of his teachers.
He said the attitude was: "Give us the time, give us the people, give us the autonomy, we can fix our schools ourselves."
Burt moved quickly. He kept two of about 36 teachers, recruiting eight or nine from his previous school and targeting young recruits at universities he knew were producing promising teachers. He drew parents in with a monthly "parent university," where families could learn about topics such as nutrition, academic standards, how to help their children in school, and financial literacy. He started a Saturday academy and a six-week summer reading boot camp.
Pushed by what he describes as a competitive streak and a "Type A" personality, Burt worked 13 to 14 hour days. He rested on Saturdays, but after Sunday church, he drove to Ford Road and worked from 1 to 5 p.m. Burt, who is not married and does not have children, reviewed teachers' lesson plans and checked every single classroom to ensure that the rooms were clean and ready for students.
His mindset about work is simple: "However long the work takes is however long I take."
Within two years, Ford Road had moved to the top 25 percent of all schools statewide.
The school today, led by Burt's former assistant principal, has one of the smallest achievement gaps in Memphis. The answering machine still says Burt's motto for the school: "Where dreams are fulfilled and excuses are eliminated."
Tim Ware, executive director of Tennessee's Achievement School District, said he toured Ford Road with business executives while Burt was principal. People were impressed by his leadership, he said.
"As a turnaround principal, he understands in a very granular way what it takes to move a school," he said, describing him as a "passionate communicator" who can be direct without acting as a "hard hammer."
Burt's track record at Ford Road made him a popular recruit.
TNTP, formerly known as The New Teacher Project, that works in low-performing schools, hired him last year to coach principals. In that role, he briefly consulted in Lakewood, Melrose and Fairmount Park. Less than six months into that job, Burt was persuaded to take a top administrative job working for Ware in the Achievement School District.
Just a few months later, he saw a job advertisement online to oversee the improvement efforts in Pinellas and he told Ware that he felt called by what he saw as a "really, really monumental task." Ware gave Burt his blessing to go.
"I think he is ideally suited to lead that work," Ware said.
• • •
Burt has never faced a challenge quite like the five schools in south St. Petersburg.
Ranked by the state Department of Education in 2014, Melrose was the lowest-performing elementary school in Florida. Fairmount Park was No. 2. Maximo was No. 10. Lakewood was No. 12. Campbell Park was No. 15.
Ninety-five percent of black students tested at the five schools failed reading or math that year. Students didn't fare much better on the state's new standardized tests last year and the schools remained at the bottom statewide.
Yet, in recent months, district officials and influential business leaders have downplayed the problems. On the same day that board members approved hiring Burt, they played a video in which members of the Pinellas Education Foundation said the schools were merely "represented" as underperforming.
Black leaders have said repeatedly that there's a disconnect about the severity of the problems.
Ricardo Davis, president of Concerned Organization for Quality Education of Black Students, said the publicity around the schools has created a "reaction," but he still hasn't seen a comprehensive plan to address the issues.
"I still don't believe that the commitment is there," Davis said. "I keep hearing that it's not as bad as it looks and we're saying, 'Yes, it is. We view it as a crisis.' "
Maria Scruggs, president of the NAACP's St. Petersburg branch, told deputy superintendent Bill Corbett at a recent parent forum that "sometimes you've just got to go out there and publicly say, 'We screwed up.' "
Since starting in late January, Burt said that both Grego and Corbett have been "totally supportive" of him. He said that his goal is to "change the narrative" of what's going on in the schools — not by promoting a different image, but by fixing the problems.
"If the narrative causes us to address some things that may be uncomfortable but that benefit kids, then I think the current narrative did its job," he said.
• • •
At the community meeting earlier this month, Burt and other school officials faced a barrage of pointed questions from black leaders.
Why are district officials just now realizing that implicit bias is the cause of discipline disparities between black and white students? Why doesn't the district hire more black teachers? How will Burt's recommendations fit into the existing plans to address the five schools?
How will Burt's recommendations be different?
Burt told the group that there already are "great" changes occurring. Grego has provided more training for teachers and principals. He also added mental health counselors and classroom aides. Burt's job will be to "take it to another level and at a fast pace," he said. He plans to start rolling out some initiatives this summer.
"A lot of my work is to say, 'Let's look at what we've done. Will this yield the most benefit for kids and was it the right thing to do?' " he said afterward.
His message resonated with some in the room. Community activist and educator Christopher Warren told district officials at the meeting that they were drowning and that Burt would "drag you off the sea bottom."
Afterward, Burt said that he wants to see more interaction among the five schools, so that school officials become comfortable sharing data and strategies. He wants to look at the needs of the "whole child," including schedule changes to allow for recess. He wants to see more lessons infused with "cultural competency." That could mean talking about a recent series of shootings in St. Petersburg as part of a social studies class.
"What's going on their world really matters to them, but sometimes no one gives them an outlet to talk about it," he said of students.
Burt said that he's optimistic about the five schools' future and confident in his ability to make changes.
"I know that I'm going to get the job done," he said.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @Fitz_ly.