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St. Petersburg residents perceive schools' quality is slipping

St. Petersburg residents are growing more pessimistic about the quality of the city's schools, according to a new St. Petersburg Times poll.

But they don't necessarily think the schools are to blame.

Thirty percent of 608 registered St. Petersburg voters said city schools were worse than they were five years ago, while 20 percent said they were better and 28 percent said they were about the same.

At the same time, respondents were far more likely to say parents and students were primarily responsible for school quality (37 percent), rather than the School Board (27 percent), principals and teachers (15 percent) or new superintendent Julie Janssen (11 percent).

"That's great news for politicians, and should be great news for the School Board and the superintendent," said Darryl Paulson, a retired political science professor from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg who closely watches education issues. The results suggest that residents are "not going to hold them accountable for the mess we're in."

Janssen said the negative numbers were significant and needed to be improved. But she also said the views of St. Petersburg residents may have been clouded by turbulence in the district, including years of navigating a complicated school choice plan that has now given way to a return to neighborhood schools.

The Pinellas district oversees schools in St. Petersburg.

"We have been in flux," Janssen said. "We've got to not do major shifts in where families are sending their children."

The poll, conducted last Tuesday through Thursday by Communications Center Inc. of Lakeland, has a margin of error of 4 percentage points. It did not distinguish between voters with school-age children and those without.

The results come after an especially choppy year for Pinellas schools.

The School Board hired Janssen last fall, after former superintendent Clayton Wilcox abruptly resigned. It closed four schools and consolidated four more in the spring, after historic cuts in state education spending. And it cringed when the state handed poor grades to eight high schools, including a D to Lakewood High and an F to Gibbs High, both in St. Petersburg.

School Board member Linda Lerner, whose district includes parts of St. Petersburg, said perception isn't reality.

The results may be swayed by "the whole school grading issue, which I don't think accurately depicts what's happening in the school," Lerner said. "If you're not making (progress) with even a small number of students, it could bring your grade down."

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker made a similar argument about perception, but pointed to school grades as proof the city's schools are getting better. In 2001, not a single elementary school in St. Petersburg earned an A. Last year, 16 did.

"I'm not saying we don't have any challenges or problems," especially in high schools, Baker said. But in elementary schools, "the progress is unquestionable."

There are 38 traditional public schools, including fundamentals and magnets, that are either in St. Petersburg or count a majority of St. Petersburg kids as students. They're challenged by some of the highest rates of poverty in Pinellas County.

Twenty-two of them earned A or B grades last year. Sixteen earned C's, D's or F's.

At some, performance has fallen.

At Campbell Park Elementary, 73 percent of students were reading at grade level five years ago; last year, 61 percent were. At Melrose Elementary, the numbers have dropped from 61 percent to 57 percent.

At the same time, the reading rates at Woodlawn Elementary are up from 50 to 62 percent, and climbed from 68 to 80 percent at Mount Vernon Elementary.

At all four schools, the free- and reduced-lunch rates are above 74 percent.

"They care," said Jo Davis, 53, whose daughter Amanda is a fifth-grader at Mount Vernon. "And when you (as a parent) participate, they participate back."

Davis, who also has a son at Boca Ciega High, rated St. Petersburg schools about the same as they were five years ago.

She said she's happy the district downsized busing. But she worries that it hasn't prepared south St. Petersburg schools enough for resegregation. Or done enough to boost the graduation rate, which stood at 74.4 percent districtwide last year.

"I don't have the solution," Davis said. "I just don't think that they got it quite right yet."

Black voters and women voters were more likely than other voters to say St. Petersburg schools are getting worse.

Teresa Johnson, who is 51 and black, said schools need to try harder to communicate with parents about struggling students.

"The parents aren't getting it from the teachers until they get their report card. Then it's too late," said Johnson, whose son graduated from St. Petersburg High and whose sister is a Pinellas teacher.

But Johnson said parents need to step up, too.

"It's not the way it was when we were growing up," she said. "We were afraid to miss school. My dad would spank our butt or take away something we loved — the bicycle, the TV."

The poll also found St. Petersburg is generally okay with Janssen. Residents were nearly three times as likely to give her good or excellent marks (29 percent) as poor or not so good (11 percent). But 32 percent rated her average and 28 percent either weren't sure or didn't have an opinion.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Sample poll questions, results

How would you rate the quality of St. Petersburg schools today compared with five years ago?

30.3%: Worse

28.0%: Same

20.9%: Not sure/no opinion

20.0%: Better

0.8%: Refused poll

Who do you hold most responsible for the academic quality of St. Petersburg schools?

36.6%: Parents/students

26.8%: School Board

15.4%: Principals/teachers

10.9%: Superintendent

8.1%: Not sure/no opinion

2.2%: Refused poll

How would you rate school superintendent Julie Janssen's job performance?

31.7%: Average

27.9%: Not sure/no opinion

25.2%: Good

6.7%: Not so good

4.5%: Excellent

4.0%: Poor

St. Petersburg residents perceive schools' quality is slipping 10/20/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 21, 2009 7:44pm]
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