Thursday, December 14, 2017
Education

Pinellas hiring turnaround leader to help lowest-performing schools

Faced with five of the lowest-performing elementary schools in Florida, Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego is hiring a new administrator to oversee improvement efforts.

As director of school leadership, Antonio Burt, a former principal and "turnaround" leader, will provide "day-to-day guidance" to principals, help recruit and retain good teachers, and monitor academic progress.

For now, his focus will be only on Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose elementary schools — the schools featured in "Failure Factories," a yearlong investigation by the Tampa Bay Times.

Read the Pinellas Schools investigation: One fateful decision; years of neglect. 

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The series has detailed how the school district abandoned integration efforts in 2007 and then failed to provide promised resources for the five schools, which became predominantly black and poor. Today, the schools are failing at rates worse than almost any other schools in Florida.

The Times also detailed how violence and disruption soared at the schools and teachers fled after 2007. The five schools now have the hardest time finding and keeping experienced teachers.

In his new job, Burt will be responsible for addressing many of those issues. That includes helping principals create school improvement plans, monitor the use of behavior management programs and ensure that employee training programs are relevant.

Grego said Burt's role will be similar to a coach, and he will be based largely at the schools in St. Petersburg, not district headquarters in Largo. The goal is to make improvements as fast as possible, he said.

"He will spend the majority of his time at those five schools," Grego said.

Black leaders said Monday that they had reservations about the new position.

Ricardo Davis, head of the Concerned Organization for Quality Education of Black Students, said he had a lot of questions about how the new position would fit into other strategies for improving the five schools and black student achievement overall.

"At the end of the day, whatever the district does or doesn't do, the question is: How does that change what's happening in the classrooms with these children?" he said. "That's the important question."

The Rev. Manuel Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg said he thought it could help if one person focused on the schools' needs. But he said that person would need to be free to try new ideas, rather than enforce old strategies.

"When you look at what works nationally, it's not what our current strategies are," he said.

Grego, who was hired in 2012, eliminated a similar job, the turnaround officer, eight months into his tenure. He shifted the responsibilities to another administrator. At the time, he said improving low-performing schools was "everyone's responsibility."

Grego said Monday that the new position doesn't represent a change in philosophy. Everyone still is involved in the improvement efforts at low-performing schools. He said Burt's role will be to build on the work of TNTP, a nonprofit group that the district hired in January to train teachers and administrators in the five schools.

"He's truly training and elevating the strength of the leadership," Grego said.

District officials advertised the new position in late October, interviewing three finalists for the job in mid November. Burt will start in late January, pending School Board approval today. He will make about $98,000 a year.

Burt currently serves as an administrator in Tennessee's Achievement School District, which was created to improve the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state.

He has worked in education for a dozen years, and as a principal, he helped make dramatic improvements at one of Tennessee's lowest-performing elementary schools. He also worked briefly as a leadership coach with TNTP.

The new job is Grego's latest effort to improve the five elementary schools in south St. Petersburg. He has replaced principals, stepped up teacher training and added classroom aides and mental health counselors. He is working on long-term plans to transform three of the neighborhood schools into magnet programs. He also created a broad plan to improve black student achievement districtwide.

Data reporter Nathaniel Lash, researcher Caryn Baird and data director Adam Playford contributed to this report. Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at [email protected]

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