A week after a brawl exposed the considerable discipline problems disrupting John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg, the school superintendent showed up Friday to talk to administrators and sent a letter home to parents. But it was first aid for a situation that needs triage.
John Hopkins requires the strongest response the school district, local government, community groups and parents can deliver. So do other Pinellas County neighborhood schools already showing signs of the trends that landed John Hopkins in such trouble.
Pinellas' return to neighborhood schools after decades of court-ordered busing for desegregation was supposed to be positive. Students could go to school with their nearby friends rather than being split up and bused elsewhere. Parents could be more involved in their child's education.
But John Hopkins Middle is Exhibit A for what can happen when the demographics of a school shift and there is a lack of preparation by the district and insufficient support from parents and the broader community. Surrounded by low-income, crime-plagued neighborhoods, John Hopkins is changing from a relatively safe haven for learning to a school infected with the problems outside its walls. Neighborhood feuds are brought inside. Disruptive students pick fights, disrespect teachers and bully other students. Teachers and administrators acknowledge they lack control. The quality of education for all students suffers — regardless of race.
Statistics tell the John Hopkins story. During the entire 2007-2008 school year, 33 John Hopkins students were arrested. So far this year: 62. Fifty-nine percent of the student body is eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. The school has 236 students (out of an enrollment of around 1,100) who are overage for their grade, a concentration that is proving unmanageable. And applications for the school's three magnet programs have plummeted from 1,026 last year to 570 this year. No wonder. This is a school in a downward spiral that requires an emergency response.
Moving chronically disruptive students to another school setting will help but it will not solve systemic problems at John Hopkins. The environment must change.
The school needs a strong administrative team, tougher enforcement of the rules, more help for students lagging academically and socially, and better and more frequent communication with parents. It needs a district superintendent who foresees and heads off problems in this school and others. Superintendent Julie Janssen has so far seemed weak and ineffective.
The city of St. Petersburg, though it has no direct control over county schools, should recognize this is a community issue, not just a school problem. Mayor Bill Foster should be publicly offering his assistance and city resources. Community groups, including the NAACP, should be applauded for already offering their help, which the school district should welcome and arrange to use in specific ways. And parents, who have more ability to influence their children than anyone else, must be more involved every day.
It isn't too late to stop the downward trajectory at John Hopkins. It isn't too late to set the stage for positive change in other schools transitioning to neighborhood-based student populations. But it will take a concerted, sustained effort from all parts of the community.