Friday, February 23, 2018
Opinion

Rick Kriseman: School solutions must be emphatic, immediate

We all must change this story right now

The Tampa Bay Times report on five St. Petersburg elementary schools has provided our school system and community with a much-needed jolt. Though the details are deeply troubling, the report is not altogether revelatory.

For nearly a decade, members of our community have railed against results in these schools and rallied to support the students being failed. And while great strides are being made — many of which I've witnessed firsthand — it is obviously not enough.

How we got here is a hotly debated topic that raises eyebrows and tempers. Understandably, finger-pointing is prevalent. While accountability is important, sustainable solutions that address the systemic issues must be our focus. What are we — all of us — doing to change this story? Our answers must be emphatic and immediate.

Among my administration's answers to that question is an unwavering commitment to opportunity creation, because opportunity for parents means hope for their children.

Within our city government, we've raised the minimum wage, ensured convicted felons get a fair shake in our job market and implemented paid parental leave for moms and dads.

Outside City Hall, we've stopped arresting teenagers for misdemeanor offenses, instead offering a second chance following the completion of community service. That second chance includes guidance and mentoring to encourage different choices.

In 2012, Pinellas County published "The Economic Impact of Poverty," a study that identified a large swath of our city where 25 percent of residents live at or below the federal poverty level. Further, we found that to be the case for nearly 31 percent of residents in the proposed Southside CRA. Nearly twice the level of St. Petersburg as a whole, this plaguing reality persists at high levels over time and across all age groups. Academic achievement for impoverished children requires a comprehensive approach that includes wrap-around services for their families and opportunities that touch all involved in a child's journey.

Our approach to partnership with our schools reflects this. Our efforts with the Pinellas Education Foundation yielded more than $2 million in scholarships to low-income children in 2014-2015. More than $100,000 came directly from our city employees.

We've also initiated a service-learning mini-grant program and a curriculum-based service learning pilot is scheduled for launch this school year. Virtually every St. Petersburg-area public school has one or more corporate partners tutoring, mentoring, supporting classroom grants and service projects.

In October, following the final approval of our recommended budget, a director of education and community engagement will join our city team to lead our public education efforts and assist our education leaders, partners and parents.

This is just some of what we're doing. Because while education policy is not within City Hall's purview, the success of our schools and the children who attend them are everyone's concern. It affects everything we do.

Finally, during this tenuous time, it's especially important to thank the undervalued and overworked school administrators, teachers and staff who have dedicated themselves to these five schools and the children who learn there. Their resilience is to be commended. They deserve all of our support.

Rick Kriseman is mayor of St. Petersburg.

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