High-quality public education hinges on good traditional public schools. Magnets and other specialized programs are not for every student, and they’re not meant to be. In Pinellas County, the district’s array of school choice offerings tends to get the most attention, but a budding turn back toward neighborhood schools, spearheaded by parents, offers a vision for making more neighborhood schools the first choice for families — and for resuscitating a robust system of public education, which is key to the Sunshine State’s future.
For years, North Shore Elementary was a low-rated school of last resort. It draws from affluent areas of St. Petersburg including the Old Northeast, Snell Isle and Northeast Park. But it also has a substantial number of low-income students, and had a grade of D from the state due to low test scores. Many parents inside the zone dismissed North Shore as an option and sent their kids to parochial and private schools, or drove miles from their neighborhoods to district magnet programs, fundamental schools and charters.
Then, in 2015, a small group of parents embarked on something of an experiment: to make the neighborhood school the preferred choice for families and, in turn, make the school better. As Times staff writer Colleen Wright reported, they formed the nonprofit Friends of North Shore Elementary, raised $27,000 to make physical improvements to the campus and started spreading the word to more families.
Two years in, the difference is incremental but real. Where 49 percent of zoned families chose North Shore in 2015, now 52 percent attend. Some parents gave up coveted spots in magnet programs to become North Shore Knights, and at least one family pulled their kids out of the prestigious and pricey Shorecrest Preparatory School in favor of North Shore. The school’s grade has improved to a C, and officials think it could tick higher when new test scores come out. Then there are the intangible benefits: kids being able to walk or bike to school, a student population made up of kids from surrounding neighborhoods who live close to each other, not to mention the stress avoided by skipping the high-stakes lottery for limited magnet spots.
A parent-led revival has worked before. Families around Shore Acres Elementary rallied to boost enrollment at that school, which had been steadily losing students. The big test will be whether this can be replicated on a wider scale and in less affluent neighborhoods. Good neighborhood schools need parents to donate time, energy and even money. Families where both parents work full-time and single-parent households often don’t have as much flexibility as those where mom or dad stays home.
Friends of North Shore plans to take its mission outward, and the school district should throw all the support it can behind that effort and seek more ways to champion neighborhood schools to make them a bigger draw, particularly in middle- and working-class parts of Pinellas.
Traditional public schools are where public education will succeed or fail. And the chance of success improves when the push is organic, coming from within the school community and its neighborhood rather than from faraway Tallahassee and its overbearing mandates. No matter where it starts, the effort requires good teachers, strong principals and buy-in from parents. By pooling their energy and resources, a group of St. Petersburg parents has started a renaissance at North Shore Elementary that can be a model for raising the game at more of Pinellas County’s neighborhood schools as well as those across the state.