When a school is failing, it is not just its students who stand in harm's way. It is society itself. So when a school needs help, it is essential for the community to pitch in.
That is what is happening at Fairmount Park Elementary in the Childs Park neighborhood of St. Petersburg. Multiple agencies, including Pinellas County schools, the city of St. Petersburg and the Juvenile Welfare Board, are combining forces to create a holistic approach to helping children and supporting their families to provide a better environment for learning.
Most importantly, the plan has avoided so far the insidious trap of low expectations for these students. It is modeled after the Harlem Children's Zone, a successful New York City initiative that vowed to do "whatever it takes" to educate underachieving, disadvantaged students. The children at Fairmount Park need help. But given a boost, there is no reason they cannot catch up to their peers.
Forty-one percent of Fairmount Park's third-graders scored at the lowest level in FCAT reading, meaning they read poorly, if at all. Among fifth graders, two-thirds of the students tested below grade level in reading. And the school's grade has sunk from C to F.
The school has the highest concentration in Pinellas County of African-American students, nearly nine in 10. That percentage has risen rapidly over the past few years, as the district's return to close-to-home schools lays bare that Pinellas neighborhoods are segregated by race and income, not by law, of course, but in practice. In May nearly all of the students — 94 percent — qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, a marker of the extreme poverty at the school.
The St. Petersburg plan is starting off on the right foot, but it has a long way to go. It acknowledges that parents are the key to their children's success, but that parents themselves often need assistance, particularly when they are poor and scrapping to hold together a single-parent household.
The children who are struggling at Fairmount Park were all born after disturbances rocked St. Petersburg in the mid '90s, which led the city to pay more attention to its poor black neighborhoods. But the low reading scores at Fairmount Park show how much more still needs to be done.
Fairmount Park students and parents won't get there alone. While the school district has the direct responsibility for education, St. Petersburg and its residents have a vested interest in helping schools within its city limits thrive — just ask businesses and families if they prefer to be in a city with great schools or mediocre schools. That's something to keep in mind this fall when grades for the city's struggling high schools are released.