This year, for the first time, five Pinellas County schools underwent a state-mandated "turnaround" process of severe proportions. Chronically failing, they were pushed to replace their staffs. Some went so far as to replace their principals.
Last week, Pinellas released a survey of school employees that provides the first statistical glimpse into the transformation taking place at Fairmount Park, Melrose and Maximo elementaries, along with Azalea and Pinellas Park middle schools. The picture is one of optimism, frustration and all the other sentiments that surface as a school tries to do better.
"It's a heavy lift down there, and they've got a long way to go," said Bob Poth, the area superintendent who supervises Azalea Middle. "But if there's any school that I think you can turn to at the end of the year and say they made progress, it's going to be them."
Staff at the five turnaround schools said in the survey, administered in February, that they were developing positive relationships with students. Seventy-three percent of those surveyed at Maximo said that new programs were introduced effectively at their school. At Melrose, 88 percent said the school improvement plan was effectively communicated, implemented and monitored.
Fairmount Park's results were the rockiest of the five. Forty-four percent of those surveyed disagreed that the school improvement plan was going well, and less than half said they felt supported in their jobs.
Across the board, the turnaround schools reported skepticism of the efforts of its students and parents, most from the challenging communities that surround the schools.
Just one in four Maximo teachers said that students take responsibility for their learning. Less than 30 percent of those at Azalea Middle said students have high expectations for themselves, and 22 percent at Fairmount Park said students are motivated to learn.
When asked to rate the sentence "Parent support for this school is strong," one out of 32 teachers and staffers in the Melrose survey agreed. That's 3 percent, well below the average response for all Pinellas elementary schools (low in its own right at 58 percent; the average for all middle schools was 48 percent).
In an email to district officials, Behrokh Ahmadi, executive director of assessment, accountability and research, said the survey responses "revealed that parental involvement continues to be a challenge."
The district will use the survey to target areas for improvement at individual schools, Ahmadi wrote. A total of 5,193 school-based employees responded to the survey.
Although the average numbers across Pinellas were not rosy, a look at individual schools shows large disparities.
At Clearwater Fundamental, 100 percent of respondents said parents supported the school, valued their children's achievement and had high expectations for the school's students.
At Pinellas Park Middle, where a parent-teacher-student association was created this year after at least five years without one, 19 percent of staff said parents showed strong support for the school. A little less than half said parents valued their students' academic achievement.
Still, for Pinellas Park, this was an increase over last year when 10 percent said parents' support for the school was strong.
"We're not going to see huge results our first year," said Tiffany Davies, the president of Pinellas Park's PTSA. She said they've spent the school year creating a presence. "We'd love to do it like, a snap of a finger, but the reality is you have to change the perspective of everybody."
Parents who already were at Pinellas Park before the changes began this year have been less antsy to get involved, Davies said. They didn't know it could be different.
Poth also spoke of the long-term work needed at Azalea Middle, where less than 40 percent of staffers surveyed said parents "have high expectations for their student success at this school."
Azalea has created teams of teachers who have the same group of students this year, allowing for more focus during parent conferences, Poth said. "Even though the survey still shows they obviously have a long way to go, it's making a big difference."
Lisa Gartner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).