Saturday, May 26, 2018
Editorials

Editorial: St. Petersburg's illiteracy problem

There is no explanation that makes it more palatable, no rationalization that makes it acceptable.

St. Petersburg is home to the two worst public elementary schools in Florida when it comes to how well its students are reading. Even more jarring: Among the 25 worst-performing elementary schools in a state of 19 million people, St. Petersburg is home to five.

Nothing about that statistic is anything but disheartening for the families whose children attend those schools and for the city counting on those children growing up to be productive employees and taxpayers. Yet even as the city's schools are increasingly divided between those where students are learning to read and those where students are failing, the broader community has not heard the alarm. With some exceptions, St. Petersburg has largely been silent.

Pinellas schools superintendent Mike Grego has led the School Board toward impressive efforts in his first year on the job: after school programs, summer programs and even a more generous food service to ensure children aren't hungry as they sit in class. Several schools received turnaround plans, including the state's worst-performing elementary school, Melrose, which acquired an exceptional principal and an energized staff. Yet performance on the FCAT reading exam at the city's low-performing schools dipped lower again.

There are some explanations for this year's lower scores. Amid a sea change in the state's education standards, 2013-14 was a year where students were taught with a new curriculum not aligned with the FCAT.

But no reason lifts this cloud: Five of Florida's worst 25 elementary schools in reading performance were in the Sunshine City. Behind its glistening waterfront, burgeoning arts scene and friendly neighborhoods is a rising tide of illiteracy that threatens the future of not only many of its poorest children, but an entire urban community.

This should be the clarion call — for the business leaders who have sat on the sidelines; for politicians who claim to support education but stand by while these students can't read; and for the broader community to look beyond their own schools, public or private, to engage in making sure every child learns. Even the best teachers can't do it alone. Only a concentrated and sustained effort, communitywide, has a chance to turn this tide.

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