Sitting on the cafeteria floor, about 170 third-, fourth- and fifth-graders gathered to celebrate the academic stars among them.
There were only a few.
Eight students earned all A's. Twenty-four had A's and B's. The exercise itself — an honor roll assembly — was peculiar for Melrose Elementary. One hadn't been held in years, staff members said.
"Destiny Wise … Alissa Knox … ."
As the names were called, principal Nanette Grasso surveyed those seated on the floor. She needed them to remember this moment, to admire the children getting the paper certificates, to yearn to take their own spot at the front.
If they didn't, Melrose Elementary, one of the lowest-performing schools in Pinellas County, a school with three consecutive F's, couldn't beat the omnipresent shadow of state intervention. Grasso, 56, has two years to answer a question: Can a veteran principal and a new, energized teaching force turn around a chronically failing school?
It's far from a proven formula, and yet failure could trigger a menu of drastic options: Closing the school, converting it to a charter or handing it over to an outside management company.
Grasso needed the students to want to succeed. So she dangled a carrot. For the children who had earned all A's on their first report card, there would be a field trip. A big one.
A fresh start
Melrose Elementary has been on the decline for years, the kind of death spiral that scares away good teachers and makes parents say, "My kid's not going there."
The school, at 1752 13th Ave. S in Midtown, was the poorest in Pinellas last year, with nearly all its students on subsidized lunch. One in four had been held back one to two years. Three in four students weren't reading on grade level. Its out-of-school suspension rate was sixth highest among more than 70 elementary schools, with 74 students booted 151 times. More teachers at Melrose requested a transfer out of the school than at any other.
Melrose's F triggered a state-mandated "turnaround" plan. Superintendent Mike Grego opted for the least dramatic choice, replacing the principal and forcing teachers to reapply for their jobs.
He chose Grasso, a 28-year veteran from B-rated Orange Grove Elementary in Seminole, to take the helm. Grasso, a strong leader with a whisper-soft voice and relentless enthusiasm, hand-picked most of the staff.
Kim Lopez, a 34-year veteran, came from Orange Grove to teach fifth grade. Her daughter, Emily Maker, 24, also from Orange Grove, took a first-grade job. Casey Maker, 26, Emily's then-fiance, moved from another turnaround school, Fairmount Park Elementary, to teach third grade.
Heidi Bockover, 47, a curriculum specialist at Orange Grove, became the assistant principal.
Before school started in August, the new band of teachers toured Midtown. They visited Jordan Park, a public housing area near Melrose.
At one of the stops on the tour, Grasso made a promise to the community: "We're not going to let you down."
Florida's playbook for chronically struggling schools isn't revolutionary. The harshest remedies — wholesale teacher replacement, school closure, charter conversion — have been tried in other school systems nationwide.
None are a quick fix.
The state, in the 2011-12 school year, started pushing those changes on schools much faster than before by marrying the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law with the state's own accountability process. Struggling schools now must act sooner.
This year marks the first time under the new system that low-performing schools start their turnaround plans.
"We believe that there will be lessons to be learned," said Sam Foerster, the state's deputy chancellor for school improvement and student achievement. But he said that the state is "pretty confident" schools will improve.
Melrose is one of five schools in Pinellas County facing the most serious level of intervention, with frequent visits from state officials who write brief reports, noting everything from school cleanliness to whether behavior expectations are posted in classrooms.
Such an environment can create high turnover and low morale. Teachers surveyed at Melrose last year complained about "disruptive" state visits, repetitive training and lack of support from the School District. One wrote that Melrose was being "set up to fail."
The concept of staff restructuring is simple. Teachers who didn't post strong gains among their students should be replaced with those who have, Foerster said.
State officials, however, acknowledge that students are affected by more than teachers.
Research shows that the relationship between the school and parents "matters a whole lot," Foerster said. So does how safe students feel on the way to school and "in their environment."
Some factors "are not entirely in our control," he said.
Students who live in poverty typically fall years behind their peers, a fact reflected in school grades. Only nine elementary schools in the highest-performing 100 statewide last year had most of their students on subsidized lunch.
Melrose was one of seven Pinellas schools ranked in the bottom 40 of about 1,800 elementary schools.
Not long after the school year started, Lopez, 59, asked herself a question: After three decades in the classroom, would she have to change her teaching style to handle students at Melrose?
Many of the students expected her to yell to get their attention. She didn't. They didn't seem to know how to handle disagreements. They didn't quiet down when she asked, making it difficult to teach. She would give a direction and not get "any cooperation at all."
"I'm not going to lie. It was rough at the beginning," she said.
One of the biggest hurdles identified by state officials at Melrose was behavior, a problem intertwined with low-performance. Students can't learn if they're serving a suspension or not listening.
Melrose gives students an extra hour of reading each day. It encourages them to stay after school for more learning. Kids can take home laptops, and academic coaches help teachers in the classroom. While those supports help, the school is betting that tackling behavior will be the key to improving performance.
Grasso's approach has been to reward good behavior and to create pride in the school. There's student of the week, citizen of the month, honor roll and principal's list. She even asked students to vote on new carpeting.
Fourth- and fifth-graders took a seven-week course called "Too Good for Violence." The hourlong sessions taught them strategies for handling problems. They learned to say, "I don't like what you said because it hurt my feelings," instead of hitting or shoving.
School officials studied referral data from last year, looking for "hot spots" where students were getting into trouble. Frequent fights in the cafeteria? Students now compete for the Silver Spoon award, which rewards good behavior at lunch. Too many classroom disruptions? Students arriving one or two hours late? They now earn points for following classroom rules and for showing up on time.
The results have been dramatic, with a 66 percent decrease in referrals compared to last year at this time, Grasso said.
For many of her students, Lopez said they just need to believe they can do the work. The ability is there, but the confidence sometimes is not, she said.
One day, she describes Laquail Humphries, 11, as a "math whiz." He grimaces. "You said I'm a math whiz?" She doesn't hesitate. "You are a math whiz."
Another day, after school, she quietly tells him, "I need you to make better choices."
Far from upset, Laquail stays after school for a while, just hanging out with his teacher.
Will they stay?
By the time students reached Lopez's fifth-grade class this year, some had seen three or four principals and countless teachers come and go. Melrose was missing one of the keys to building a successful school culture: stability.
"What is best for these children? It's to have the same teachers in these classrooms year after year," Grasso said.
Teachers were offered a $3,000 bonus to come to Melrose this year. But research shows that teachers typically care more about their work environment than money.
Grego said he has seen a "significant improvement in that school's culture over last year."
Grasso comes in early, leaves late and finds herself drawn to Melrose on weekends. When she can't sleep, she goes through email. She said extra hours are expected when you move to a new school. But at this one, her team includes social workers, psychologists and family and community liaisons.
She said she has been impressed by the bonding that has occurred among staff members in a few short months. They play on a kickball team and wear their team shirts to school on game days.
Others have built-in connections. Grasso and Bockover have worked together for more than a decade. Lopez visits her daughter Emily's classroom each day to say hello. Emily Maker — still Miss Lopez to many of her students — married Casey Maker in January. Their wedding photo was included in a presentation to state officials.
The mother-daughter duo established Book Buddies at Melrose, where fifth-graders and first-graders read to each other, a partnership they also had at Orange Grove.
Lopez said she felt her class start to click in November. She's seen academic growth in each of her children. In late January, she described the "most perfect day ever" in her classroom, with every student focused and listening.
Emily Maker said Melrose's longer day can be exhausting for students and staff. To combat that, she has students earn "Fun Friday," 10 minutes on the playground for good behavior throughout the week.
Melrose is a challenge, but it's "nothing that can't be overcome," she said.
She and her mother plan to stay.
Melrose's downward slide can be traced, in part, to a rise in poverty at the school that coincided with Florida's push to increase academic standards.
The school got a C in 2007 when Pinellas County Schools stopped using racial quotas in enrollment. Melrose was the first school in the county to become majority black, drawing most of the students from the neighborhood. By the time it earned its first F in 2011, the percentage of students on subsidized lunch shot up 20 points to 94 percent.
The No. 1 question parents now ask about Melrose: "Is it safe?"
It's not a question they often ask about A-rated Perkins Elementary, which is less than a mile away. The popular arts magnet, which draws students from all over Pinellas, has less than half its students on subsidized lunch. Even fewer are minorities.
A man had to direct traffic at Perkins' Discovery Night last month. A Perkins teacher joked that she couldn't be bribed for open seats. At Melrose's Discovery Night, touting its journalism program, two families showed up.
The students' writing reflects the neighborhood problems that come with them to school. Last spring, fourth-graders wrote postcards to the mayor in their school newspaper, the Manatee Messenger. They asked for more police, more streetlights, money for pregnant girls and help for the homeless.
"I live in a city where a lot of young girls get pregnant at the age of 12, 13 and 14," one child wrote. "A lot of times when they ask their boyfriends for money or help, they are too busy robbing, stealing, doing drugs and killing."
Another wrote that he couldn't sleep because neighbors were blasting music, yelling and throwing glass bottles past 11 p.m. "I want to be able to sleep, but this is really hard to do right now."
The star pupils were ready. Grasso had promised a field trip to the few students who earned all A's. This was their day.
"We are going to a restaurant where you've probably never been and which you will remember for a long, long time," she had said.
They had permission to wear church clothes instead of school uniforms. They had studied the menu and learned what "blackened" and "pan seared" meant. They were prepared for an extra fork and linen napkins.
They reminded each other of the restaurant's name: 400 Beach Seafood & Tap House.
Of the seven students who could go that day, four had never been to Beach Drive. Five had never ordered food from a waiter. They rode in a small bus provided by the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Suncoast, past John Hopkins Middle School, past Tropicana Field, out of Midtown.
With the bus parked across from the Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club, the children climbed out slowly. One of the girls tottered on short heels and three boys paused for Grasso — "Ladies first," they said. Destiny, a fourth-grader, spun in a circle, arms outstretched, on the sidewalk.
"This is so amazing. I feel like I'm in a fairy tale," she said.
There were more adult sponsors than children at the lunch. Everyone was asked to watch a public service announcement about safety on the Internet, but the children didn't seem to mind.
They received bicycle helmets, with the promise of a new bike delivered to school the next day. They ordered grilled pork chops, pan seared salmon and chicken sandwiches. They mostly ate dinner rolls.
"I'm going to be fat with bread," Kesha Mitchell, a third-grader, declared.
They were told they were the best of the best at Melrose and to take that message back to school.
Grasso couldn't be sure the lunch would have its intended effect. She didn't know if the children would tell their friends, or if the numbers of all-A students would jump at the next honors assembly, slated for March.
But already she was wondering how to top it. What would the next reward be? Disney World?
Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8846. Follow @Fitz_ly on Twitter.