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A Times Editorial

Turning around a failed school

For at least a decade, St. Petersburg's Gibbs High School has been failing to educate far too many of its students. And a year after giving the school an F, the state has lost patience. It placed Gibbs and a handful of other Florida high schools on the "intervene'' list Thursday, which will lead to more aggressive state oversight and perhaps sweeping changes in the faculty. Unfortunately, the depressing news comes as no surprise for anyone who has been paying attention.

FCAT results show roughly two-thirds of Gibbs' ninth- and 10th-graders have been reading below grade level for at least a decade. Last year, more than half of the 10th-graders tested at the lowest level of reading. That number has been worsening for years. This situation did not happen overnight, and Thursday's state action was only the latest alarm bell.

Pinellas school officials can argue that the state shouldn't be meddling so drastically just a few days before schools open. And the terrible timing is the responsibility of the state, which has failed to timely deliver test scores because of problems with the testing company. But the problems at Gibbs didn't begin last year, and good intentions at the local level have failed to turn things around. The 450 or so freshmen who enter Gibbs on Tuesday offer another fresh opportunity to try new teaching techniques and build an aggressive effort that stretches beyond the classroom walls and into family living rooms.

Gibbs, and Hillsborough's Middleton High, which remained on the state's "intervene" list, are far from alone. A majority of the students at Gibbs and Middleton are black, and many are poor. A new report by the Schott Foundation for Public Education shows black males are struggling to graduate from high school in big districts throughout the country, including four counties in Florida. Pinellas graduated a lower rate of black males — 21 percent — than any other large district in the United States in 2008. Hillsborough graduated 35 percent. Local officials dispute the methodology, but the graduation rate is not a proud statistic by any measure.

In a foreword to the Schott report, the president of the Harlem Children's Zone, which has been successfully turning around the lives of young black men, says that "disenfranchised youth cannot afford even one bad teacher."

What are some potential answers?

• Earlier intervention to bring in all the resources of a community to mentor and raise up children before kindergarten. An emerging plan at St. Petersburg's Fairmount Park Elementary to help parents help their children shows promise.

• More time in the classroom with teachers and tutors to help catch up, and time after school with mentors who can be role models. That means longer school days, after-school remediation and longer school years. Will that cost money? Yes, but the alternative — sending more young adults to prison than to college — is far more expensive.

The problems at once-proud Gibbs High, a jewel of the black community in the era of segregation, did not occur overnight. And Gibbs is just one of four south Pinellas high schools with a D state rating or lower that need more attention. But the state's action on Thursday should create a new sense of urgency within the school district and the community to tackle a situation that has festered far too long.

Turning around a failed school 08/19/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 19, 2010 7:31pm]
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