The public education crisis is even more challenging in St. Petersburg than in Tampa or the rest of Pinellas County. Look past the continuing controversy over Florida's school grading formula, and student reading scores tell a sobering story: Only four of 29 St. Petersburg-area elementary schools had more than 70 percent of their students reading at grade level in 2012-13. That has long-term implications for those students and an entire community that expects quality schools and needs an educated workforce. • All three major mayoral candidates talk about working with the Pinellas school district to improve schools. And in his first year, Superintendent Mike Grego has launched ambitious programs that have long-term potential to make a difference, particularly when it comes to countering the challenges created by poverty. • But more government programs won't be enough by themselves. Nothing less than a communitywide commitment and expectation of excellence — from business, churches, civic groups and residents — can turn this tide.
, Pinellas reading skill versus poverty
Higher-poverty schools tend to have lower levels of reading success. The chart at left shows just how much, plotting reading achievement at every Pinellas elementary school last year (the vertical axis shows the percent reading at grade level) against the portion of students receiving free- and reduced-price lunch (the horizontal axis). Six of the seven worst-performing schools were in St. Petersburg (see the lower right corner of the chart), and they do even worse than high-poverty rates would predict (they fall below the line delineating likely performance for a given level of free and reduced-price lunch rates). We can do better: Pinellas' highest poverty schools did worse last year in reading achievement than their counterparts in Hillsborough County.
Where would you want your child to go to school?
St. Petersburg has to come to terms with a double dose of reality: Its young families are poorer than many might suspect, and schools' lackluster reading performance sends the wrong message for attracting new young families and employers. How bad is it? None of the city's zoned neighborhood elementary schools had more than 2 out of 3 children reading at grade level last year. The four schools that can boast such success had the least number of low-income students and admit students only by application and lottery — three are fundamentals and one is a magnet.
A concentration of poverty
Twenty-eight of Pinellas County's 85 elementary schools last year served student populations where 75 percent or more of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Those schools are disproportionately concentrated in South Pinellas, serving St. Petersburg children. In fact there were just four elementary schools and one charter school in the city where a majority of students didn't qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. It's widely accepted that poverty causes home-life disruptions that make it harder for children to prepare for and excel in school.