Students failed, teachers left, parents complained. Now John Hopkins Middle has a new principal.

Students leave John Hopkins Middle School after the final bell Friday. The school district this week removed Dallas Jackson as principal of the St. Petersburg school, an unusual move during the middle of an academic year. Officials cited ongoing problems, including continued complaints. [DIRK SHADD   |   Times]
Students leave John Hopkins Middle School after the final bell Friday. The school district this week removed Dallas Jackson as principal of the St. Petersburg school, an unusual move during the middle of an academic year. Officials cited ongoing problems, including continued complaints. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Dec. 12, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — When last year's eighth-graders from John Hopkins Middle School took the state test in math, only a handful — 3.5 percent — scored well enough to pass.

The achievement gap between black students and their white peers on state English tests had grown to a staggering 52 percent.

And police response at the school nearly doubled from the year before for incidents like battery, assault, brawling, theft and drug possession.

Kids stopped going to class. Teachers quit.

Trouble has been brewing for awhile at John Hopkins, according to student performance data and interviews with teachers and parents. But it wasn't until this week that Pinellas County school officials stepped in to remove Dallas Jackson as principal.

Superintendent Mike Grego made the decision, which was unanimously approved without discussion by the School Board Tuesday. Five board members who returned calls about the school said Grego privately briefed them on his reasons for the action, but only Eileen Long and newly elected member Bill Dudley agreed to share details.

"Evidently there were some issues that Dallas Jackson had not addressed," Dudley said in an interview. "I can't be specific on what exactly those issues were ... (Grego) just said there were issues that had not been resolved."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Personnel swap leaves John Hopkins Middle School with a new principal

Grego declined to be interviewed and provided only a general statement regarding Jackson through Pinellas schools spokesperson Lisa Wolf Friday. "This was a decision that was made collaboratively with district administrators to ensure John Hopkins Middle School's success," it said.

School Board Chairwoman Rene Flowers, whose District 7 seat represents John Hopkins and other schools in south St. Petersburg, said her conversation with Grego about the move was private. She declined to discuss Jackson's performance as principal at the D-rated school, calling him a "fine person."

However, the district has continuously fielded complaints about Jackson's "leadership style" since he took over in July 2017, area superintendent Bob Poth, Jackson's direct supervisor, said in an interview Friday.

"There had been a consistent amount of concerns by parents at the school," he said, "... a consistent amount that hasn't diminished."

Jackson did not respond to Tampa Bay Times requests to the school district for an interview.

• • •

Once held up as one of Pinellas' more popular magnet schools, John Hopkins has not rated better than a C grade since 2011.

Under principal Barry Brown, the school rose from an F in 2014 to a C in 2017. Then it fell to a D — within 3 percentage points of an F — the next year under Jackson, landing on the district's list of most-struggling schools.

"It's not like we were a stellar school before, but we were turning a corner," said Laura Packard, a 30-year science teacher at John Hopkins who retired after one year under Jackson.

She called his appointment a "poor leadership decision" by Grego, who placed Jackson in the job despite a less-than-successful stint at Sligh Middle School in Hillsborough County two years prior.

Sligh teachers at the time told Hillsborough officials that Jackson pitted them against each other and reprimanded them for writing referrals. The same thing happened at John Hopkins, reading teacher Christopher Stephens said.

"I would use the word hostile," he said, describing the culture of the school. "The word 'team' was thrown around but things just didn't seem cohesive."

Many students at John Hopkins are homeless or live in extreme poverty, and they come to school with baggage, said Tharius Bethel, who was hired as a violence prevention specialist at the school in Jackson's first year and earlier this year ran for School Board. He now works the same job at nearby Meadowlawn Middle School.

Unlike Brown, Bethel said, Jackson couldn't connect with students, especially the more troubled ones, and there was no respect for his authority.

"They just didn't buy into what he was selling," he added. "Teachers would write referrals but they never got processed. Students got to the point where they didn't care about consequences because the leader wouldn't enforce them, and that creates a problem."

St. Petersburg police have responded to 94 incidents at John Hopkins since Jackson became principal, records show. Nine involved children being placed under the Florida's Baker Act, which allows a person to be involuntarily held if they are deemed a danger to themselves or others. Even more of the events were violent.

During the same period the previous year, when Brown led the school, officers reported 49 calls for service, records show. Three were Baker Act cases.

• • •

As Jackson pulled back on discipline at John Hopkins, teachers' jobs became more difficult, said Packard, the retired science teacher. Students caught on to the more relaxed structure, so they pushed back harder against authority.

"When kids know they can say whatever they want, it's hard to keep a classroom focused," she said. "You're just trying to put out fire after fire, and before you know it the class period is over, and what did you accomplish?"

Shaina Lynch, mother of an 11-year-old gifted student at John Hopkins named Eris Prescott, said her daughter regularly came home from school this year frustrated that her classes aren't challenging enough. Kids at the bus stop often talked about how loud Jackson would scream in the lunchroom, and how teachers would tell students they didn't want to be there.

Lynch brought those concerns to Jackson, but he dismissed them, she said. Later, she scheduled an individualized education plan meeting with him and all her daughter's teachers. Five minutes in, she recalled, the principal stood up, saying, "I don't have time for this," and walked out. That's when she started complaining to the district.

"He was an extremely unprofessional and aggressive man," Lynch said. "He can't run the school, he can't control his staff. He has no business being a principal."

Poth said Jackson seemed to want to succeed in his role, but poor testing data along with complaints from parents like Lynch made clear to district leaders that it was time for a change.

"There was not a specific last straw," Poth said. "It was a culmination of (many) factors ... and our analysis that the trajectory was not going to change."

Records show nearly every sub-group of students at John Hopkins performed worse on state tests the year Jackson became principal. In English, about 45 percent of students overall earned a Level 1, the lowest rating possible, defined by the state as "inadequate" or "highly likely to need substantial support for the next grade."

Nearly 60 percent tested at that level in math.

Despite the data and problems other Pinellas officials have said they are aware of, Flowers said this week she had no concerns with Jackson. John Hopkins is just a difficult school, she said. And, according to her conversations with Nikita Reed, head of Pinellas' "transformation" schools, it is on track for a C this year.

Reed, whose office is housed at John Hopkins, did not respond to a request for comment. But Poth contradicted what the School Board chairwoman said, noting there is no way anyone could know what grade the school might earn for 2018-19.

"There's just not formal data to say that," he said. "There are too many variables ... for us to do any prediction at this time."

• • •

Of the county's 140 schools, John Hopkins ranks in the top 10 for teacher complaints about campus culture and working conditions, Pinellas' teachers union president Mike Gandolfo said.

Staff turnover there has been high since Jackson's arrival, added Tom Lentz, head of union membership services. Though that could be due in part to other factors, he said, some teachers quit because of Jackson specifically. Others who butted heads with the principal were fired.

"I don't believe Jackson did anything to improve the climate," Gandolfo said. "Maybe he doesn't intend to be malicious, but his management style is more in tune with a military background than leading educators."

However, Jackson's removal from John Hopkins came with a new assignment by Grego that's linked just as closely, if not more so, to teachers. On Wednesday, he became the district's manager of talent acquisition, or teacher recruitment.

The school will now be led by Carlmon Jones, a past assistant principal of two turnaround schools who since June 2017 has held the job that Jackson took. He started at the school Wednesday.

"He has a unique skill set," Poth said, adding that while Jones has never been a lead administrator, he has helped boost other struggling Pinellas schools as an assistant principal.

"We've got a track record with Mr. Jones that he can hit the ground running and has experience turning around a school," he said.

Jones, who did not return a call for comment, grew up in south St. Petersburg schools, Poth said. His face is familiar to many of the staff and families at John Hopkins.

"The school is lit up," Stephens, the reading teacher, said after Jones' first day. "Everybody is walking around with smiles. It's a whole different feel."

School Board member Long said that while it's not ideal to change a principal in the middle of an academic year, Pinellas school leaders owed it to the John Hopkins community to make a change.

"John Hopkins deserves a leader that can rise it to the top," she said. "If one leader can't do it, that means it's time to bring in a principal who maybe has more appropriate skills."

Times senior news researchers Caryn Baird and John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Megan Reeves at Follow @mareevs.

Correction: The Times called and sent a written message to a Pinellas County School District spokeswoman asking to speak with Dr. Jackson for this story. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Dr. Jackson "declined multiple requests" for an interview. He simply did not respond.