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Pinellas principal credits state aid, longer school day for turning around struggling high school

It was the F school. The one with the bad kids and the vandalism and the teachers lining up to leave.

Two years ago, Gibbs High in St. Petersburg hit rock bottom, becoming the first high school in Pinellas to earn an F. But if more recent FCAT scores and graduation rates are any indication, Gibbs is finally getting some traction. In December, it shed its F for a C, and but for a glitch, would have earned a B. Its graduation rate rose 9 percent last year, among the most in Pinellas. And in each of the last two years, it has made some of the district's biggest gains on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

Superintendent Julie Janssen tasked principal Kevin Gordon with turning the school around. He began work on July 1, 2009 - about two weeks before the F. He spoke with the St. Petersburg Times about Gibbs' progress since then and the challenges still ahead.

What's the biggest difference between the Gibbs of 2009 and the Gibbs of 2011?

We're not an F. Superficially, what you can see from the outside, that is the biggest difference. Beyond that, the culture of the school is so different.

Talk more about that.

There's order. Which I told you last time, the teachers had said discipline was the No. 1 thing that needed to be addressed. And we did. And it didn't take very long for that to happen. So after that happened we began to address instruction. Really looking at what teachers are doing in the classroom. Of course that takes longer to really change that culture of having higher expectations for kids, and really wanting to up the rigor of the instruction. In two years, we've done that. Teachers that are here are dedicated, hard working teachers. And they love working with the kids we serve. And that's a huge shift in the culture of the school.

There are a lot of things that go into changing the culture of a school... if you could single out one thing, what would you point to?

I don't know if I could pinpoint one thing. People would tell you that leadership makes the difference. Having a vision. Being able to communicate that. Then being able to get people to go along with you. I think we were able to do that collectively. Our 'one band, one sound' mantra. The first year, the mantra for the kids was you're here to get a good education and a high school diploma. And really instilling that type of stuff into the kids, that the focus here is on academics, the focus here is for you to get a good education, the focus here is for you to graduate from high school. And that's really kind of embedded itself in what we do now. Keeping the focus on kids, making sure they stay on track...We took a...cohort approach where an administrator and a guidance counselor are attached to a cohort of kids.

That's different than it was before?

It's a different look at it. And then the design of that is they're going to keep those kids for four years. They're going to track attendance, they're going to track grades, they're going to track discipline. Look at early warning signals is what it's called. EWS. And if through monitoring we see a student beginning to get off track, we begin looking at what types of interventions we can put into place. The benefit for the kid is that they have a constant in their administrator and their counselor. They build that relationship not one year, but over four years. You really get to know the kid. You really get to work with parents. To really help the kid be successful.

How much of a difference did the state make? (Gibbs was put under state oversight in 2009.)

I think the state was a big help to us. To really start putting in a sound instructional delivery model. And then to have them behind us, to help push, okay these are the things you need to be working on. Because the state, they go around the state and they see schools that are not successful. And schools that are not successful pretty much have the same types of issues that they have to deal with. And schools that are successful are doing the same types of things to be successful.

So could you have done this without the state?

I say the state was a pretty key part. Not sure that the progress that we made would have happened without the state.

How much difference did having extra time make?

On the surface, it ended up only looking like 30 minutes. But with going to the block schedule you gained some time from passing, so it almost ended up being an extra hour of instruction that we gained. And when you start looking at some of the data, for math in particular, but when you also start looking at the reading gains, and start looking at some of the gains we made, a lot of that has to do with the extra time.

Are you still going to have the extra time in the fall?

Yes we are. That schedule will stay the same. The difference will be, it won't be as taxing. This year it was hard. Teachers were teaching seven out of eight (class periods). We changed the schedule in the middle of the year. So you had to convince the kids that hey this is a good thing and this is going to help you. And then try to sell it. And then try to make it beneficial for the kids.

So how is it going to be different?

It will be different this year because the teachers will be teaching six out of eight as opposed to seven out of eight (class periods).

So a little less stress on them but the kids still get the extra time? Do you bring in extra teachers to make that work?

Well, our approach this year – and we're going to try to duplicate that this year, and I'm not sure how much we'll be able to duplicate it, but as much as we can, we will – that eighth period, where we had kids who needed extra help, we had team teaching. So we had two instructors, particularly in reading and in math. Those classes were team taught in that eighth period. So the reading was paired with an English and a reading teacher. And for math, you had two math teachers. And when I started looking at the gains data, it was just huge. We had one math class where 100 percent of the kids made gains in math. And there was another class that was 85. And another class, 82. Then 63. 62. Just phenomenal gains.

Looking at the FCAT scores over the past 10 years the percent of students reading at grade level at Gibbs has ranged from 31 to 36 and the percentage of black students reading at grade level was 15 percent this year. What do those numbers tell you?

It tells me we still have a lot of work to do.

Last year, Gibbs had 35 teachers request transfers. That's several years in a row the school was at the top or close to the top in transfer requests. What does it say?

It was a mix. Of voluntary and involuntary. I think that number was probably closer to 40 or 50 that first year. The second year we had 35 that put in requests. But there are some teachers in that number who put in a request every year. And I think if you go back and look at that, you'll see there are some teachers who are just going to do that anyway. In fact, some of them came to me and say hey, I just put my name in, it doesn't mean anything, I don't want to go anywhere. Some people do that because of the uncertainty of what's been happening with education. They just want to, if something bad is going to happen, I've got my name in and that gives me some options.

In the past five years, your free and reduced lunch numbers have gone up another 20 percentage points. (According to state figures, it was at 66 percent last year.) How much does that matter?

What it does is make us focus on the type of support we have to give the kids in order for them to be successful. Disadvantaged students in poverty need to have their basic needs met before they can be successful in school. Understanding that the majority of our population falls into that category means that we have to provide additional services here at school as much as possible… So we've had a full time clinic come on this past year. Which has been absolutely amazing. The kids can go in and get free health care services. So we take care of that need … We also have through the YMCA some additional wraparound services that the kids can get. We had someone come in twice a week this year to provide wraparound types of services. Also, our social worker and school psychologist are here five days a week in tandem …

You are seeing some gains, but like you yourself said, you still have a ways to go on some things. Do you have everything you need to get where you want Gibbs to be, and we all want Gibbs to be? Or are there some things you would still like to get, or need to get? Do you have a wish list?

You know what? I started getting some of my wish list this year. We finally got wireless throughout the whole school. The smart boards are going in. In fact, the smart boards have been installed. We have the document cameras which will be installing the upcoming year. Another wish list type thing which we'll probably try to take care of this year with the additional (federal) funding...

So anything specific?

I like the instant responders. They work in tandem with the smart boards. It doesn't necessarily have to be with the smart board … Where the teacher can electronically do a question, a survey, something tied to the lesson. And the kids will have these instant responders and they respond to it right there from the seat. And it electronically tallies and gives you instant statistics.

So you can tailor your instruction immediately based on the response?

Yes. That's part of the next phase of technology to roll out for the school.

What about parental involvement? Community involvement? Got enough of that? Wish you had more of that?

You could always use more parental involvement. But historically our parent involvement to me just looks different than parental involvement people are traditionally used to. We do have parents who come to school. We do have parents who come to conferences. We do have parents who come to sporting events and other school functions. We do have all of that. Now, is it where we'd like to be? No. But we do have involved parents. I think the thing about involved parents for children in poverty is they have to work, and sometimes they have to work multiple jobs. So sometimes that parent involvement looks like making sure they get to school every day.

Reach Ron Matus at or (727) 893-8873.

Pinellas principal credits state aid, longer school day for turning around struggling high school 07/11/11 [Last modified: Monday, July 11, 2011 7:45pm]
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