DUNEDIN — When Kathleen Brickley became principal at Dunedin Elementary in 2005, the school had an A.
Since then, its enrollment of low-income students went up. So did the number of Hispanic students who needed help with English. Reading and math scores steadily declined. And in 2013, the state gave Dunedin an F.
So Brickley set goals and sought help from the city. She helped recruit volunteers and brainstormed with teachers on how to do better.
Last week, their work paid off. The state released school grades, and Dunedin earned a C, jumping two levels in one year, a rarity among Florida schools.
But for Brickley and 17 teachers who helped turn the school around, it was too late.
In May, before the school year and Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test taking had ended, superintendent Mike Grego told nine schools they were entering "turnaround" status. Teaching staffs would be reconfigured, principals would be shuffled and two would be demoted.
Brickley was one of the two. A 24-year Pinellas County School District employee, she will take a $25,000 pay cut and be the assistant principal at Brooker Creek Elementary. It is unclear how many displaced teachers have yet to be assigned.
The district's handling of the situation has struck many as harsh and premature.
"Let's look at his tactics," Christine Tsotsos wrote of Grego in a stinging letter to the School Board. "Jumping the gun, assuming the worst, excoriating good people. We certainly don't want our children to be treated like that in the classroom, yet it seems to be OK for the superintendent to treat hard-working employees with disdain."
A retired teacher and volunteer at Dunedin, Tsotsos suggested that Grego apologize.
State rules for turnaround schools give the incoming principal a $5,000 incentive and the following year's teaching staff a $3,000 incentive for teaching at a failing school. Even though Dunedin's previous staff lifted the school from its F status, the incentives will be rewarded to the new staff, the district said.
Despite naming Dunedin a turnaround school, Grego said he anticipated its grade would improve.
Brickley's demotion was based on several factors, including the school's culture, past grades, demographics and behavior issues, he said. "It's the stuff underneath (the letter grade) that matters."
When asked about the decision, Grego said the school's grade had declined since Brickley took the helm. He also angrily objected to being questioned about the decision.
"The day that I have to justify every blasted move in our district . . . You can take over if you like," he told a reporter.
Although Dunedin's grade improved, Grego said he had higher expectations for the school. "I'll celebrate an A at Dunedin," he said.
He would like to see Brickley become a principal again, though.
Brickley said she was proud of what she and her staff accomplished at Dunedin and had no criticism for how the matter was handled.
"I pride myself on my professionalism," she said, adding: "We're a good district."
District and state numbers show Dunedin Elementary changed dramatically during her tenure. When Brickley took over in 2005, 53 percent of its students received free or reduced price lunches, an indicator of poverty. Last school year, nearly 80 percent participated in the lunch program.
And in just the past five years, the percentage of enrolled Hispanic students jumped from 25 percent to 42 percent.
"One of the challenges they have in the school is English as a second language," said Dunedin City Manager Robert DiSpirito. "If the kids can't get support at home, they're less likely to succeed."
After Dunedin's F last summer, Brickley met with DiSpirito and City Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski to ask for help. She said Dunedin's outdated technology was preventing students from working on FCAT practices. Her teachers, under extreme pressure to deliver results, needed classroom volunteers. And some students needed support at home.
The city raised money for new computers and offered a free literacy class at the library. Officials sent a letter to more than 40 volunteer organizations, and more than 20 individuals showed up to a "call to action" meeting.
Rhonda Burkholder, a veteran teacher displaced from the school, said Brickley consistently shared data, helped identify struggling students and set up training sessions. Each week, team leaders from every grade met to discuss highs and lows. Before winter break, Brickley offered gestures of thanks to the staff, as by providing hot chocolate and cookies.
"She had an open door policy. If there was ever a concern or something you needed to talk about, she was always there," Burkholder said.
Other displaced teachers shared similar recollections.
"I feel betrayed," said Celeste Roche, who has a master's degree in English as a second language and has been a teacher 27 years. "I've worked my butt off for those kids and that community."
City officials had nothing but praise for Brickley and her staff.
"Everyone is sad to lose her," Bujalski said. "At this point, we just want to get behind our new principal and continue the community support. I certainly feel like the work is not yet done."
Contact Katie Mettler at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kemettler.