ST. PETERSBURG — Jenee Skipper wanted to be involved in her son's education at Campbell Park Elementary. At every turn, the school made it difficult.
She recruited volunteers to read to students. School officials told the volunteers they could work in the cafeteria. She asked for homework. She didn't receive any. She wanted to attend parent meetings. The meetings were scheduled at 7:30 a.m. — a time that was convenient for school staff, but tough for working parents reliant on public transportation.
"If I have to catch a bus and get to work, I can't make it to a meeting at 7:30 a.m.," she said. "If you want to know how to help parents, ask parents."
Skipper was one of five parents invited Saturday to sit on a panel hosted by the NAACP's St. Petersburg branch to discuss their experiences in five failing elementary schools in south St. Petersburg. About forty parents, school leaders and community members attended the forum at the Child's Park YMCA.
The NAACP organized the event to hear from parents after the Tampa Bay Times yearlong series, "Failure Factories," which showed how the district abandoned integration efforts in 2007 and then failed to follow through with promised resources for the five schools. Today, the schools — Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose — are failing at rates far worse than almost any other schools in Florida.
District officials have tried to downplay problems at the schools in recent months. School leaders played a video at a public meeting in December in which members of the Pinellas Education Foundation said the schools had been merely "represented" as underperforming. Linda Lerner, who has been on the School Board since 1990, has been perhaps the most vocal defender of the school district. She said at that meeting that the video shows "what's really happening."
Parents at the forum, both on the panel and in the audience, told a different story.
Several described feeling rebuffed or intimidated by school officials when they tried to be involved. Some said that their children had academic or behavior problems in the five schools, but then were successful when they moved to magnet programs or neighborhood schools in other parts of Pinellas County.
Matt Stewart, a foster parent of a 7 year old, said that his foster son frequently had behavior problems at Campbell Park. Those issues stopped when the child moved to a school near Stewart's home in north St. Petersburg. He said that he wondered how much of that had to do with the change in schools.
"Children shouldn't have to leave their neighborhood schools and move to north county to get an education," he said.
Nahomy Franklin, a mother of four, said that she had positive experiences with the teachers and the principal at Lakewood. But she said that many parents are scared to speak up when they do have a problem.
"There are a lot of parents that are afraid to come forward," she said.
Skipper, who liked her son's Campbell Park teacher before she went on maternity leave, eventually moved him to Bay Vista Fundamental Elementary — and the difference between Bay Vista and Campbell Park was incredible, she said.
"I should not have to go to a fundamental school to get homework," she said. "I should not have to go to a fundamental school to get a reading log."
Cory Vilardi, a third grade teacher at Fairmount Park, said that the burden shouldn't be on parents to reach out. It should be on the teachers and the school.
"The things that I'm hearing shouldn't be happening," he said.
Some parents said, too, that school officials have to be aware that some families are struggling to get by.
Candice Moore, who had three children at Melrose, said that the entire community must be more involved.
She said that her concerns often are about providing the basics for her family: "One of my babies is sick, how am I going to work tomorrow? Here's this phone bill — how am I going to pay it?"
Deputy superintendent Bill Corbett, who represented the district at the forum, said that teachers in the five schools have received some training about poverty and cultural issues. But he said that more is planned because "it's not enough."
Maria Scruggs, president of the NAACP, said that people should be cautious about stereotypes about black parents not being involved in schools.
"They are there, it's what happens when they get there," she said.
Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at [email protected] Follow @Fitz_ly.