An oft-repeated bit of conventional wisdom is that schools with high numbers of children from low-income families will have poor academic performance. Don't tell that to Deborah Turner, the principal of Blanton Elementary in Pinellas County. In six years, Blanton rose from earning an F on the FCAT to earning two A's in a row. While what Turner and her staffers have accomplished might not qualify as a miracle, it is a shinning example of how to beat the odds with leadership, passion, hard work and inspiration.
At Blanton, 76 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunches. It is in a blue-collar neighborhood, and it lacks the kind of strong parental involvement taken for granted at many other schools. Humiliated by the F on the FCAT, Blanton decided to turn things around. Turner found the right teachers and persuaded them to help her change the school.
First, she encouraged a can-do attitude toward Blanton's students. "Kids come in little gifts and boxes," Turner told the St. Petersburg Times. "And it's my job to get them out. … I tell my staff that we cannot go and fix the homes. That's not your job. The job is, the day your child arrives in front of you, pretend you're it. If you have parental involvement, great. But if you don't, you can't use that as an excuse. There's no excuses whatsoever."
Knowing that Florida schools are graded on their FCAT and other test scores, Turner decided that she and her staff had to learn as much as they could about their students' performances in every area. They mined the data, ascertained patterns and implemented their own practice tests and tutorials suited to their students. While creating a warm atmosphere on campus, where kids are hugged, praised and rewarded, Turner and her staff insist on structure and discipline — no mohawks, no jewelry. And shirts must be tucked in.
The 2009 FCAT season has started, and Turner and her staff expect their students to score well. The Blanton Elementary experience is an inspiring example of what determination, collaboration and compassion can produce in public education — regardless of the odds.