The Pinellas County School Board signaled this week it is pursuing its boldest plan yet for helping the county's lowest-performing schools. Superintendent Mike Grego proposes opening new elementary magnet schools in 2017-18 at four or five of those schools. It's a strategy that has worked in the past when the district marshaled significant resources to create exceptional schools to attract a diverse student population. Such effort will most definitely be required here.
The end of mandatory busing in Pinellas in 2003 has now shown its full effect. Zoned schools reflect their neighborhood demographics, with all the challenges that can come with them. In south Pinellas, racial and economic segregation is particularly acute, and the area now has five of the 25 worst-performing elementary schools in the state when it comes to reading scores. More than nine out of every 10 children at those five schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Grego is betting that diffusing the high concentration of low-income students can make a difference.
Studies have shown that children who come from economically disadvantaged homes are more likely to show up unprepared for kindergarten but have a better chance to catch up if they attend a school with students from higher-income families. The goal is to mimic the success of a trio of St. Petersburg magnet programs that have attracted diverse student populations in low-income Midtown and Child's Park neighborhoods. Perkins, Sanderlin and Jamerson elementary schools are all A schools, while nearby zoned schools struggle.
It's not just poor children who could benefit. Grego's team made clear there is another incentive as the district faces increasing competition from charter and private schools: more options for all families. In the district's annual lottery for magnet and fundamental schools, thousands of families are disappointed and none more than those seeking Perkins' performing arts program. Among the new magnets, Grego has said, will be another performing arts program, probably at Clearwater's Sandy Lane Elementary.
Many parents want more fundamental programs, which offer the same curriculum as neighborhood schools. But those choice programs, which don't offer busing and have strict parental involvement rules, tend to exacerbate the district's economic and racial segregation. Slapping a "magnet" on a school's name doesn't guarantee success. Several of the district's magnet programs — including one at struggling Melrose Elementary — have lost their luster and don't enjoy nearly the demand of others. And there's a lesson from a decade ago, when the district established four mini-magnets at south Pinellas schools in a failed attempt to forestall resegregation. Most have been abandoned.
Grego pledges the district will do better this time and is banking on winning up to $1 million per school in federal grants to ensure attractive, quality programs. In the meantime, the district isn't off the hook for doing all it can to help those students stuck in demographically isolated schools to be successful. They don't have the time to wait for a magnet program. They need help now.