She applied her “listen-to-me lipstick,” a hot pink that commanded attention, and got into her Toyota 4Runner for the long drive to Fairmount Park Elementary. It was time for some frank talk with the teachers who were struggling in one of Pinellas County’s toughest schools.
Just two years earlier, the squat school tucked between two churches off Fifth Avenue S had been ranked the second-worst elementary school in Florida, based on test scores. It was impoverished and segregated. Too many kids misbehaved, too many teachers came and went. Two principals had tried to turn it around in the past six years and had failed.
Kristy Moody, a former Coast Guard officer who often rose at 4 a.m. to work out, was the latest principal assigned to improve Fairmount Park. Outwardly, she didn’t have much in common with her students. She was white, and like many of the top leaders in the school system, lived in the county’s northern reaches, nearly an hour away from the mostly black neighborhoods zoned for the school.
Her shelves were stocked with books like World’s Great Men of Color, and she didn’t shy from talking about “white privilege.” She told one teacher who was resistant to the idea: “You’ve never left a job interview uncertain if the color of your skin will affect the outcome.”
In her first weeks at Fairmount Park, in one of the biggest challenges of her professional career, Moody had stayed relentlessly positive. She spoke in mantras.
I’m not going to let the day control me. I will control the day.
The name of the game is getting organized.
Every day a little better than the day before.
On this day, though, it was hard to believe things were getting better.
In one classroom, a boy snapped pencils, jumped on chairs and ripped posters off the wall. He climbed into a tall cabinet and kicked down the shelves, watching as an avalanche of papers and supplies rushed past his feet to the floor. In another classroom, a girl threw her math book at the teacher. In still another, a fight spilled out the door. A girl, dodging like a boxer, turned and spit at a boy, then lifted a chair between them to block his fists.
While past principals at Fairmount Park had been criticized for ignoring all but the most serious calls for help, Moody responded to each outburst with a calm, firm manner.
By 3 p.m., as the school day neared its end, she paused in the open-air courtyard and surveyed the stained concrete landscape of her new school. Staff members stopped to talk about the children who wouldn’t listen, the punishments that didn’t work.
She hadn’t had time to talk to the teachers who weren’t living up to her expectations. Now, with some of them slumped around her, she didn’t have much to say.
A year earlier, the Tampa Bay Times published “Failure Factories,” a series that showed how the Pinellas County School Board had abandoned integration efforts in 2007 and had broken promises of resources and money for five elementary schools in south St. Petersburg that became overwhelmingly impoverished and black.
The schools — Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose — were overrun with chaos and disruption. Experienced teachers fled, middle-class families stayed away. By 2014, all five schools were ranked among the worst 15 elementary schools in Florida.
To attack the problems, district officials could try to reintegrate the campuses, either by redrawing school boundaries or by investing in new magnet programs. No one at the district has publicly discussed the first option. The second one was proposed by superintendent Mike Grego and then withdrawn after community groups protested that bringing in more white kids could make it easier to ignore black students’ struggles.
Instead, in late 2015, Grego hired Antonio Burt, a “turnaround leader” who had improved similar schools in Memphis. He put him in charge of a new “Transformation Zone,” which would flood the schools with extra resources. He also negotiated new pay incentives with the teachers union and created a leadership team to help recruit teachers, coach principals and assist in the schools. Grego added three other schools to the zone, too.
A top priority was getting new leadership in four of the five schools in the spring of 2016. At Fairmount Park, Grego chose Moody. She had been principal of Douglas Jamerson Jr. Elementary, one of the county’s highest performing schools, and had been a talented teacher. A former principal described her as “one of the best teachers I have ever known.”
Coming into the school year, Fairmount Park showed some signs of life; its school grade had improved to a D, with solid gains in every grade. But the hard work still was ahead and, without a systemic solution, the burden of rebuilding would rest on the people inside the school. None more so than the new principal.
Being a white person who acknowledged racism was one thing. But if Moody was going to dramatically improve Fairmount Park, she would need buy-in from black families who had seen teachers and principals come and go. She needed help from people like Chris Davis.
A youth minister in south St. Petersburg, Davis didn’t plan to go into education.
He was 13, the youngest of nine, when he followed his family to New York City from Jamaica. From there, they moved to St. Petersburg. Neither of his parents had much formal education. His mother was a housekeeper, while his father worked as a hospital orderly. They scraped together $300 for a camera, a Yashica FR1, that allowed him to join the yearbook staff at Lakewood High.
“When I put it in my hands, it just felt like a part of me,” said Davis, now 55.
For more than 20 years after high school, Davis worked as a photographer, earning a bachelor’s degree in ministry and working with teenagers on the side. Then, about a decade ago, he had a chance interaction with a teenager at a public school that changed his life. After watching the boy repeatedly disrespect a teacher, Davis confronted him. It was a small moment, but it felt like a sign that God wanted him to devote more time to children.
He became a classroom aide at Gibbs High in 2011 and moved to Fairmount Park in 2015.
Davis was horrified by what he saw. Exhausted teachers. Disruption and chaos. A teacher who tried to break up a fight fell down a flight of concrete steps and was taken away in an ambulance. Davis believed the school system was setting up a generation of black children to fail. And, as a black man, the injustice of it blistered his soul.
His wife, Joan, a teacher who is Korean-American, often didn’t understand why her genial husband was upset.
He considered quitting, but then he met Burt, the district’s new turnaround leader, a black man with a preference for bow ties and a solid track record. And along came Moody, whose work ethic impressed him. The “one-woman army,” Davis called her.
He started to see how Fairmount Park could improve under their direction, despite the poverty and segregation.
Burt suggested that Davis could fill an obvious need at the school. On any school campus, the most important factor in a child’s success is the quality of the classroom teacher, research shows. Off campus, parental involvement is critical. Moody’s job was to build a strong corps of teachers. Davis, a classroom aide earning about $18,000 a year, would get parents involved.
Get the parents, he thought, and Fairmount Park would rise.
It was Labor Day weekend, and Moody had spent most of it working on an urgent problem: fifth grade.
On the first day back after the holiday, Moody planned to be in their classrooms, modeling good teaching.
She was trying everything she could think of, with guidance from Burt. She split the fifth-grade teachers by subject — some taught only English, others math and science — and experimented with an open layout, dropping the partition between two rooms.
Tuesday morning, standing outside a classroom, she worried about whether she had prepared enough. Once inside, she transformed.
“I’m looking for scholars, busy the whole time,” she said with a commanding air.
Children worked in four groups. They were reading a book called My Teacher is an Alien. It was marked orange for the fifth-grade level. She walked students through explanations of “genre” and “paragraph.”
“What genre is that?” Moody asked.
“I need your eyeballs on me. I love to be watched. If I knew how to dance, I would do it,” she said.
She knew why some teachers were out-matched. Here, in the school’s final grade, was the product of years of novice teachers and constant turnover, often in the middle of the year. Nearly a third of the school’s 90 fifth-graders were old enough to be in middle school and had been held back once or twice. Still in fifth grade, some had first-grade reading and math skills. And many, knowing they should be able to read, had become adept at faking. To avoid embarrassment, they became masters of distraction.
Research shows that students who struggle to read in third grade are at much greater risk of dropping out. Some high school principals in Pinellas talked about making “miracles” happen with freshmen who arrived with elementary-level skills, but Moody didn’t want to count on that.
For the fifth-graders at Fairmount Park, this could be their last chance.
Moody wanted to hire the kind of experienced teachers that she had at Jamerson. She had been spoiled — at a job fair in 2015, when principals at struggling schools were hiring just about anyone they could get, Moody had said about Jamerson: “We’re not getting married today. We’re just speed dating.”
Now she knew what it was like on the other side. It meant hiring teachers with less experience than she preferred. She hired 26 teachers before school started in 2016, about half the staff.
One of them was 24-year-old Louis Bruno, who wanted to work in a low-income school. He attended the first-ever job fair for the Transformation Zone schools. An online advertisement had said they were looking for “engaged, energetic and tenacious” teachers.
Flushed and nervous, Bruno was hustled into a classroom for an interview. Soon after, he had a job as a second-grade teacher at Fairmount Park. Before the year started, he came to the school with his parents and his fiancee, Lorenza Pardo, a teacher who was heavily pregnant. He posed, smiling, with a sign that said “First Day of Second Grade.”
His last day in second grade came 16 days later. After a first-grade teacher quit, he was moved to cover the class.
When the call came, Bruno was sitting in a hospital room cradling his newborn son. They had named the boy Louis Juan, but called him L.J. Stunned, he looked down at the baby’s face. It was Friday. The new job started Monday.
“The reason the teacher left was because she couldn’t handle the class,” he said.
He soon understood why. His new classroom was a minefield. Fist fights broke out, sometimes as often as four in a day. One boy walked behind the other children and pretended to shoot them in the head. He couldn’t ask experienced teachers for help with the curriculum because Fairmount Park had new reading and math programs. Everyone was learning it together.
“Everybody was overwhelmed,” Bruno said.
Research shows that teachers are less effective in their first years on the job and that, when schools are segregated, black and brown students are more likely to get the newer ones.
Moody preferred to have one new teacher in any given year. Bruno was one of seven at Fairmount Park.
In a meeting about a month into the year, Moody and her leadership team agreed that at least some of the school’s behavior problems could be attributed to novice teachers. Some needed to script their lessons. Being under-prepared could quickly lead to chaos in the classroom.
On a visit to the school, Burt, 36, also pointed to subtle clues that some of the teachers were overwhelmed or under-prepared. It was mid-September, but the calendar in one classroom said August. One teacher hung empty charts on the walls, as if she had run out of time to finish. In another room, a poster read: “A great classmate says your welcome” instead of “you’re welcome.” Another said “schedual” instead of “schedule.”
There were other problems.
Some teachers yelled too much. And Moody walked into a fourth-grade classroom one day as a first-year teacher gave a lesson about adjectives. The teacher struggled to spell “adjective.” Then she gave students an example in a sentence: “The teacher speaks nicely.” It was an adverb.
A child can survive one bad teacher, but research shows that having three in a row hurts children, especially those in poverty. Because most of Fairmount Park’s students are poor, their teachers need to be the best.
“These classrooms should run like Santa’s workshop,” Moody said.
And in some classrooms, Moody knew that experienced teachers were getting it done.
Tim Slaughter, a former assistant principal, missed teaching and took a fourth-grade spot. Cory Vilardi, a third-grade teacher who had been at Fairmount Park for two years, had returned for another year. Brandy Walker, who had been there for two years, came back in first grade. And Kenya Wheeler, a standout kindergarten teacher, was back, too.
In Wheeler’s classroom, when students did well, she asked them to “kiss their brains” — and giggling boys and girls kissed their hands and tapped their heads. Her easel had a message: “P.S. Don’t be afraid to be amazing.”
Some days Moody visited kindergarten to feel the joy.
It was nearly two months into the year, and Moody’s plan for fifth-grade wasn’t working. She moved fast to rearrange the pieces on her chessboard.
She demoted two fifth-grade teachers to classroom aides and sent another fifth-grade teacher to Bauder Elementary, following students who had transferred there as part of a state program that lets children out of struggling schools.
She had what Antonio Burt called “eyeball conversations” with teachers who weren’t meeting her expectations. It was critical that bad habits die now. Some teachers pushed back; they had their own frustrations.
Bruno, now in a first-grade classroom, was one of them. He said that he asked to move one or two of the boys causing the most disruptions, but it didn’t happen. He didn’t think he was getting enough support for behavior.
It seemed clear that Bruno and his principal weren’t gelling.
He tried to use a firm tone in the classroom. Moody told him to lower his voice.
He wanted to make sure students understood his lessons. She told him to lecture less.
And then she was gone, hurrying to another classroom, and he was alone again.
Chris Davis was struggling to reach parents.
At one of the first parent meetings of the year, one father came. At another, three people showed up. He called it a win when seven people turned up at Fairmount Park.
He knew he had to do more. He started handing out fliers to advertise events at the school. He recruited a mother to distribute them in the neighborhood.
Adalya Bell, a single mother of four working two jobs, couldn’t devote much time to the task. Another mother, Radiance Hall, volunteered to help, but then one of her children got sick.
Davis didn’t blame them. He knew that many of the parents of Fairmount Park were just trying to get by.
Plus, he had strong community support.
At Fifth Avenue Church of Christ, one of two churches next to Fairmount Park, a couple asked to get involved after reading the Times series. Deogory Harris, who had founded a nonprofit organization dedicated to community outreach, and his wife, Kim, were interested in holding free academic camps for students to attend during their school breaks. They planned to offer tutoring on the weekends leading up to the spring exams.
Fairmount Park also had help from students volunteering from Boca Ciega High and an existing partnership with the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
Davis was startled to discover that Jamerson, Moody’s old school, had more than 250 volunteers.
At Fairmount Park, he said, parents were the “biggest missing link.”
He would have to try harder.
Louis Bruno had been teaching at Fairmount Park a little more than two months when Moody gave him a wrenching choice: He could resign from his job or be let go.
As a new teacher, he had no job security. If Moody wanted him gone, he had to go.
“I made it clear to him that he was not being successful and then he made the choice to go,” she said.
It didn’t feel like much of a choice to Bruno.
When he was called to a meeting at district headquarters in Largo, a district official told him he would be more likely to find a job if he resigned. It looked worse to be forced out. Even so, he wasn’t allowed to apply for another full-time teaching gig until the next school year. He could work as a substitute teacher, but he wouldn’t have health insurance and his pay would be cut from $200 a day to as low as $70 a day.
His mind reeled. His fiancee, Lorenza, a teacher at Lealman Avenue Elementary, was on maternity leave. What if she or their new baby, L.J., got sick? How would they pay bills?
What could he do? He resigned.
On the form, above his signature, he wrote: “Lack of proper support and communication from administration to ensure success.” Moody said he had disagreed with her suggestions.
As Bruno walked out of the meeting, he flashed back to scenes from Fairmount Park.
As a brand-new teacher, he had never run his own classroom, yet everyone at last summer’s job fair had been eager for him to interview at some of the county’s toughest schools. Then he thought about his students.
Already, they had seen two teachers come and go — and it was only October.
Nov. 10. It was a big night for Fairmount Park.
Dozens of parents, grandparents and children had arrived for Falcon Scholars Love Family Literacy Night, an event to explain the school’s new reading curriculum. Davis had made fliers and Adalya Bell had distributed them. He had called parents. Now he watched as dozens of people walked into the school.
“It lifts our spirits a little bit,” he told Bell.
In one fifth-grade classroom, Justin Weber, a first-year teacher coming off two years as a teaching assistant, introduced himself to parents. He told them their children might be “a little frustrated” because they were being pushed hard this year.
Chris Rose, Fairmount Park’s literacy coach, explained that the new program, Independent Reading Level Assessment, places children into color-coded levels based on their reading skills. Books in the classrooms also are color-coded, making it easy to match children to the right books.
“What can we do to help our scholars achieve?” Rose asked. “Re-read books.”
Afterward, in the Falcon Cafe, Davis opened bulk-sized packages of Capri Suns and cookies and passed them out. Walking toward the door with her children, Bell stopped.
“I see the vision,” she said.
The event had been a surprising success, but Davis knew it was just one night. Fairmount Park needed a lot more.
“Only if we get the parents,” he said.
When the first semester drew to a close, internal tests showed a troubling pattern across the Transformation Zone: The youngest students were outperforming the older ones. But it was the older ones — those in third, fourth and fifth grades — who would be taking the state tests that determined school grades.
Burt, the zone director, said publicly that he wasn’t that worried about the scores. Behind the scenes his team was concerned. In an email, assistant director Yvette McLean-Pilliner, said they were moving zone coaches to help in the upper grades because of the “extreme low proficiency.”
She underlined it.
By December, more than a dozen teachers had quit or been forced out across the zone. Fairmount Park had lost three, including Bruno, who quickly found a teaching job in West Palm Beach.
The springtime Florida Standards Assessments loomed like storm clouds overhead.
Fairmount Park had been near the middle or bottom of the zone on internal tests. Like some of the other zone schools, Fairmount Park had started offering occasional Saturday sessions to give more help to children who were behind.
At a session in January, Moody huddled over a laptop in the school library. Nearby, students worked with teachers.
Moody was making a big move in fifth grade. She had hired a new fifth-grade teacher, Valerie Foligno, in December, and now she had asked a talented first-grade teacher to move to fifth. Brandy Walker was a 38-year-old woman with a friendly manner and a firm teaching style who had grown up down the street from Fairmount Park. She loved teaching first grade, but had agreed to the switch.
“If all goes right in the world, where will you be next year?” Moody asked.
“If all goes right, I’ll stay — if all goes right,” she said.
“It will,” Moody said.
The truth was that Moody didn’t know. Her moves in fifth grade so far hadn’t worked, and time was running out. The writing exams, the first of the state tests, would start in less than a month. The year before, the school had improved its school grade to a D. Moody couldn’t have the test scores slip. But would they go up?
“That’s a big question mark,” she said.
After months of talking to parents, Davis knew that some of them felt unwelcome at Fairmount Park. They couldn’t easily get to events, and there was a cultural divide between the predominantly white teachers and their mostly black students.
The divide was there when some staff members mispronounced students’ names. It was there when some pictures on classroom walls showed white students, not black ones. And it was obvious when a departing teacher told Moody that these children were violent.
So Davis didn’t lecture parents who came to a meeting on a sunny Saturday morning in February. He asked how the school could help them.
Desire Robinson, a single mother of five boys, said her fifth-grader was doing well, but sometimes she works until 10 p.m. and her boys have to cook for themselves and do their homework alone. If they misbehave at school and someone calls her to pick them up, it puts her in an impossible position.
“I can’t leave work. I can’t lose my job,” she said.
Chandala Walker, a mother of two, said she was concerned about the obvious disparities between schools, the segregation, the lack of black teachers.
“We have a communications barrier and it’s killing us,” she said.
Donna Welch, director of a community center, said the instinct is to blame parents.
“We harp on the parents. 'It’s the parent’s job. It’s the parent’s job,’” she said. “I get that. But do we not educate children who don’t have parents involved?”
For just a moment, the room fell silent.
Finally, after months of trying, Moody had found the right fit in fifth grade.
Brandy Walker and Valerie Foligno had become a “dynamic team.” Walker had taught many of the fifth-graders when they were in first grade, and she knew their families because she grew up in the area. Foligno, while another brand-new teacher, had been a natural.
“They made it happen,” Moody said of the pair. “You can’t cover three years’ worth of ground in six months, but I would venture to say we made a year’s worth.”
Now, as the school year drew to a close, Moody knew that Walker and Foligno planned to stay on in fifth. Tim Slaughter, her experienced fourth-grade teacher, would follow his class to fifth grade, giving the students needed stability.
“We’re working hard. We’re not giving up,” Walker said.
Many of Moody’s teachers had signed on for another year. Only 11 wanted to leave for 2017-18, less than half the number when she first arrived. But across the Transformation Zone, instability crept in.
Nearly a quarter of the teachers in the eight schools were leaving at the year’s end, either opting to go or forced out. Three schools were getting new principals. And, in a surprise move, Antonio Burt, the zone’s director, announced his resignation in May after just 16 months on the job, citing personal reasons.
At Fairmount Park, Davis planned to stay. He thought Fairmount Park could have done more for families and he wanted to expand his role as a de facto community liaison. His quest to get parents had been a constant tug of war. Some volunteered then fell off the radar. Some lived in motels and cars.
He couldn’t quit on them.
Standing at a folding table in the main hall of Countryside High, Moody wore a peach dress and a smile. Only the tapping of a pen against her hand hinted at nerves.
It was June 1. A sign on the table said “Fairmount Park Elementary.” She was ready to hire teachers for the 2017-18 school year.
She had filled most of her openings before the annual job fair even started. Four teachers were coming from out of state, all with experience in urban schools, and one had been a substitute teacher at the school. A couple more came from other Pinellas schools. For the coming year, she would have only one brand-new teacher, down from seven.
That left her with just two openings, for a behavior specialist and a fourth-grade teacher.
She slogged through more than 20 interviews and took special note of Lee Ann Hawkins, polished and experienced, with seven years in the classroom. Hawkins had started teaching after staying home with her children. And then her world shifted last year with the death of her husband.
To make her decision, Moody could draw from all the ups and downs of her first year at Fairmount Park.
“I learned a lot of lessons about what our kids have to have,” she said.
She had started the school year determined to get the right teachers into the right spots, to not lose sight of what a good school is or lower her expectations for what this one could become. She had worked long hours and sacrificed weekends with her family. Many of her teachers had done the same, and some had burned out.
Now it was time to take stock of how far Fairmount Park had come.
Test scores showed a decline across the board in third grade and an increase across the board in fourth. In fifth grade, where there had been so many challenges, scores on the state’s English exam went down, while math scores went up. Only 20 percent of fifth-graders scored proficient or better in English. With minimal gains, the school grade fell to an F.
Of the original five schools, it was the only remaining F school.
At the job fair, Moody still didn’t know those results. But she knew what a good teacher — the right teacher — could do for Fairmount Park.
Lee Ann Hawkins already had an offer at a middle school. But when Moody offered her a job teaching fourth grade, she accepted. Walking out with her new principal, Hawkins called it a “life-changing day.”
She, like Fairmount Park, was looking to rebuild.
Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Designed by Lyra Solochek.
Contact at [email protected] Follow @Fitz_ly.