ST. PETERSBURG — Stephanie Woodford stood just inside the gated entry to Lakewood Elementary on a recent rainy morning, greeting every masked student by name, and with a fist bump, elbow tap or the occasional child-initiated hug.
“Don’t get me in trouble for the hugging,” the principal said with a smile, nodding to the pandemic that calls for social distancing. For some children, it’s a positive start to the day that they need, and few on campus will deny them.
As they continued to their classrooms, Woodford shared their stories: the oldest of six siblings all in foster care, the boy with several family members in prison, the girl who once could best be described as a “handful.” Nearly a quarter of the student body is listed as homeless.
Not that Woodford was making excuses. Feeling sorry for someone, and letting them off the hook, would do them a disservice, she said: “You can understand, but still have high expectations.”
Expectations are what Lakewood — long on the state’s watch list for poor performance — is all about these days.
And this year, they’re higher than ever, which gave Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego an idea.
With Lakewood in mind, he urged Florida Department of Education officials to allow any school that wanted a state grade to have one — even as many parents and educators called for another year without them because of the pandemic. Schools like Lakewood needed a chance to prove themselves, he said.
Education commissioner Richard Corcoran agreed.
“I think we’re going to be in a place of C or above,” Grego told the State Board of Education in March, as he asked them to extend Lakewood’s state-mandated turnaround plan.
He came armed with months of testing data that showed students making overall gains in language arts and math — not to mention notching some of the best performance in the district for fifth-grade science.
“The COVID slide did not happen in Lakewood Elementary School,” Grego said.
A long way to go
Serving a heavily poor and minority community, Lakewood struggled for the better part of a decade after Pinellas ended busing and integration. Since 2010, it has earned five F grades and four D’s in the state’s test-based accountability system.
At one point, fewer than one in five students showed the ability they needed to succeed in their grade. On annual testing, the school stood near the bottom of the state.
Some of its neighbors, such as Melrose, Fairmount Park and Maximo elementary schools, fared worse. Yet as they boosted their performances, Lakewood did not.
Its state grade in 2019, the last year of testing before the pandemic, was the same F as it had earned in three of the previous five years.
Teachers came and went, as did school leaders. Discipline problems soared.
“When (my fourth-grader) first came here, every time I came to pick her up, there were cops here,” parent Solonda Bingham recalled.
Many families abandoned the Sixth Street S campus, while those who stayed knew it needed major changes.
Lakewood’s turnaround plan included hiring an outside consultant about three years ago to help find improvement.
Around the same time, the district also brought in Woodford, a former Hillsborough County educator, to oversee the effort.
A turnaround specialist working with six other Pinellas schools, she came to Lakewood for what was supposed to be a five-week stint. She never left.
And things began to click.
Data, data and more data
Woodford brought a new approach.
She and assistant principal Renee Nellenbach, who joined the school two years earlier, overhauled the course schedule. They gave teachers more time to focus on single subjects with their students rather than having to master them all.
They expanded and refined Lakewood’s prekindergarten and kindergarten programs, on the premise that children with a strong foundation in the basics will better succeed as they advance.
They worked with the support staff of behavioral specialists, social workers and others to better address the traumas children were suffering in their lives, which can overwhelm the ability to learn and cause disruptions.
Once discipline issues declined, the leadership team began to focus on everyone’s progress — or lack thereof — toward achieving state standards. That meant tracking everything in real time and posting students’ names and numbers on the walls for everyone to see and discuss.
“Our whole focus is about getting kids proficient,” Woodford explained. “They need to understand, ‘What’s my goal and how am I going to get there?’”
She said she had no particular experience using data this way. It just made sense.
At first the kids didn’t get it. They knew the idea was to get more points but didn’t grasp how it connected to their learning.
“We started realizing the data won’t do anything for our school unless it’s real to the students,” Woodford said.
So they tackled the numbers, explained their meaning and kept no secrets. When progress came, they celebrated and let the kids know it was all about their success.
The school, which has a staff of 54, hired 27 teachers in Woodford’s first year — and made commitment to the vision a prerequisite for the job.
At first, the concept drew pushback. It can be uncomfortable to tell a student or teacher they’re failing, much less have everyone know it. And there’s plenty of literature nationally about how standardized testing puts poor and minority children at an instant institutional disadvantage.
“The current leader I didn’t take to right away,” said Judy Devoe-Cotton, an instructional aide who has helped students work on reading skills since 2006. “I didn’t understand her vision.”
After a lengthy conversation, though, Devoe-Cotton said she realized that short-term discomfort would give way to honest conversations about what students and teachers had to do to achieve their goals.
She’s not the only convert.
Fifth-grade math teacher Lynn Price, who’s been at Lakewood for 10 years, drilled her students on how to get through equations quickly enough to show what they can do for the Florida Standards Assessments coming this spring.
“How do you know this?” she asked one child as she reviewed answers. “I don’t see any of your work. It looks like you guessed.”
Students had thick binders on their desks, filled with the standards they need to meet. On the wall behind them, their scores provide a constant reminder of what they need to work on.
“That data on the wall, that drives them,” Price said. “It drives me. ... If you actually look at it and know your kids, you can target your kids.”
First-grade teacher April Ash, a 15-year Lakewood veteran, sat with her teaching team going over every child’s numbers and needs. First-graders don’t take state tests, but Ash said that’s no excuse not to look at strengths and weaknesses and develop lessons based on those results. Everyone, teachers and students, wants to improve, she said.
“We have some great tough conversations,” she said.
Despite what seems like a heavy dose of drills and testing, many students don’t see it that way.
“They basically are a review of what we do every day,” fifth-grader Atrillian Teal said.
Atrillian — “Trilly” to her friends and teachers — hopes to become a star of the stage someday. She understands that doing well in school can help her along the way, so a focus on good grades and test scores isn’t a burden.
“The amount of teaching has gotten better” along with the heavy emphasis on progress, she said. “I understand it more.”
‘They want you to strive’
The stakes are high for these kids, and they know it. And they’re not talking about the possibility of being held back a grade, as several in the school have been.
They’re talking about life.
“They push us beyond our limits, because they know we can do more,” fifth-grader Soulain Ledford said. “I don’t know what I want to be in the future, but I know what I can do.”
Fifth-grader Arteria Reddick started the year writing at a level of 4 on a 10-point scale. Her aim was to achieve a 6 before the end of the year.
With nine weeks left, she had made it to 8, her eyes firmly set on 10.
The school writing coach, “Ms. Morales, taught me how,” she said.
The students said there’s no shame in doing poorly, if it happens. They support each others’ learning, and cheer everyone’s successes.
“It gets me stronger,” said fourth-grader Ishanti Barber, who’s on the principal’s honor roll. “I have high expectations.”
Their parents do, too. And they’ve been impressed by what Lakewood has become. They spoke about the changes while attending the school’s spring award ceremony — a program that has quadrupled in size since it launched a year ago.
Solonda Bingham, Ishanti’s mom, applauded teachers for reaching out whenever they have concerns or praise, and said the school has grown to be like family.
Parent Henry Harden, who has two children at Lakewood, said he could see the shift begin when the new staff arrived.
“They took more pride in what they were doing with the kids, and with themselves,” Harden said, noting the staff turnover has ended, providing a sense of security for everyone.
“A lot of parents see the differences now,” he said. “It was like a snowball effect.”
Word of the transformation is spreading.
Keisha Kaye Scott video-streamed the award ceremony to her husband, who couldn’t be there to see son Jamal be recognized. Jamal had attended a different school across town until a cousin “told me they’re doing really well at Lakewood for her kids,” Scott said.
She decided to give the school a shot. Jamal hadn’t earned honor roll at his prior campus, she said, but at Lakewood, he blossomed, getting the award twice in three quarters.
“They want you to strive,” she said.
Avoiding the ‘slide’
Even with all this effort, the school could have declined during the pandemic. Experts across the nation predicted learning losses in communities like the ones Lakewood serves.
Staying at home to learn, with spotty internet access and sporadic interaction with teachers and friends, is not ideal for any student, much less for those who aren’t at the top of the class.
When in-person schooling resumed in the fall, slightly more than 40 percent of Lakewood’s students came to campus. All but one teacher returned.
The faculty and staff worked to convince families that their children would be safe, and perhaps better off, at school. In some cases, they made repeated visits to homes to discuss concerns and hash out solutions.
“Anything to make them comfortable,” Woodford explained.
Sometimes that meant providing the children a separate place to eat or permission to skip outdoor group activities.
As the fourth quarter rolled around, the number still at home had dwindled to 30 across all grades.
Fifth-grader Neavean Gooden was one of the more recent students to return.
“I kind of wanted to stay, just chill in bed and play games,” Neavean said.
But he knew he needed to be back.
“I wasn’t doing good, and I kind of missed some friends and the principal,” he said. “In school, you learn a lot. You get encouraged, and you get free time. I want to do well.”
Some of those who returned had fallen behind the levels they had accomplished before remote learning began. The staff didn’t dwell on the deficits, though, assistant principal Nellenbach said.
They quickly got busy accelerating them beyond their previous high point.
“We don’t say ‘remediation,’” Woodford said.
‘Something positive is happening’
It typically takes three years for a turnaround plan to come to fruition, said Kate Wolf, a school leadership coach for Learning Sciences International. Pinellas hired the consulting company in 2018 to institute changes at Lakewood.
That third year is when you can see whether the effort can sustain itself, Wolf said.
At Lakewood, “the systems are in place. The structures are strong. The culture has changed,” Wolf said, suggesting she might soon be out of a job there.
The comeback has caught the eye of Ric Davis, who leads Concerned Organization for Quality Education of Black Students, a group that monitors how students of color are doing in Pinellas public schools. He said he pays attention to the outcome data at schools because it homes in on what society measures for success — regardless of whether some critics disagree.
“Assessment and comparison with other schools is just something we have to live with,” Davis said. “We need to focus on whether students are learning.”
At Lakewood, he said, “something positive is happening.”
State officials agreed. At their March meeting, State Board of Education members cheered Lakewood’s initiatives and positive trajectory as they granted a one-year extension on its turnaround plan.
They also suggested that other struggling schools in Florida might benefit from contacting Woodford for advice.
Staying on track
The faculty and staff have come together under the new administration in a way they never did before, said Ash, the first-grade teacher, echoing many others. Now, they say, people don’t feel compelled to stay isolated in their own zones, or to leave.
Everyone has a stake in boosting the students, including the school nurse and front office staff, who routinely work with children on their lessons, too.
That’s why the principal has prioritized keeping the faculty intact. After years of heavy turnover, Lakewood has a retention rate over 90 percent. Even the teachers who are leaving said they want to remain, but life got in the way.
Fourth-grader Antonio Cooper, who’s developed close ties with Woodford, has noticed.
“I like this school because they treat us like their own kids,” said Antonio, whom the staff affectionately calls “Coop.”
He said he misbehaved in third grade, frequently running out of class and not paying attention. Rather than just disciplining him, people helped him redirect his energy.
He’s now part of the school’s Success Squad, which bases participation on earning it. And he has boosted his grades, all but disappearing from the school’s discipline referral report, which has shrunk to a sliver of its former size.
At the recent award ceremony, he received the inaugural “Tiger Achievement” recognition, devised for children who made major strides but fell just short of honor roll.
As state testing approached, Coop counted himself among Lakewood’s true believers.
“We’re going to move up to a B or an A,” he declared.
The state will release grades this summer for schools like Lakewood that want them.