Trying to maintain a struggling neighborhood school in an impoverished area is preferable to shutting it down or turning over management to a private vendor. That is particularly true in Lacoochee, a hamlet of 1,700 people in northeastern Pasco County, where the elementary school doubles as the central fabric of an economically disadvantaged community.
Preserving the public school there is driving Pasco school superintendent Kurt Browning's decision to hire new faculty and administration at Lacoochee Elementary. It is the least intrusive alternative allowed under law when the state Department of Education says academic achievement at the D-rated school is not improving rapidly enough. But it understandably feels premature to teachers on the ground. A quarter of the faculty just started at the school this year, and the decision to churn the staff came before students had completed the FCATs on which teachers will be judged. It also is indicative of the rigidity of a state scoring system that drops a school one full letter grade if the bottom 25 percent of the test-takers fail to improve their math and reading performances sufficiently — regardless of the challenges students face in and out of school.
A high turnover rate — 14 teachers and support staffers left in 2011-12 — is one of the contributing factors cited by district officials for the school's lagging academic performance. To improve stability, the district will offer teachers a back-end-loaded $15,000 three-year incentive. It likely will need tweaking, considering the first-year stipend of $2,500 could be consumed by high commuting costs to Lacoochee from other points in Pasco and the region. Browning already assigned a principal coach to the school, and the district will add literacy, math and science coaches.
The increased attention is welcome in the school serving an area where half the adults lack a high school education and where the median income is 55 percent lower than the Pasco County average.
Lacoochee, once a thriving community on a major railroad line, has never recovered after the Cummer Cypress Co. sawmill closed in 1959. Its poverty and criminal activity gained notoriety and the attention of elected officials after the shooting death of a popular sheriff's lieutenant there 10 years ago. The public school is one of the keys to an ambitious long-term redevelopment plan for the area that includes private-sector investment and state and federal money to build a $2 million community center adjacent to the county park across the street from the school.
Taking the public school from this depressed area would be an inappropriate surrender. Reinforcing the learning environment at Lacoochee Elementary will be a long-term benefit to the community and the entire county.