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St. Petersburg’s Lakewood Elementary, once an F school, now has an A

Gov. Ron DeSantis celebrated the dramatic turnaround during a visit Wednesday.
Lakewood Elementary students Kennedi Flournoy, right/front, and Heavenlei McKinnie, left, work on sight words in April. Lakewood was one of the lowest-performing schools in Florida. Now it is touted by the state as having avoided the "COVID slide." Its grade improved from an F to an A this year.
Lakewood Elementary students Kennedi Flournoy, right/front, and Heavenlei McKinnie, left, work on sight words in April. Lakewood was one of the lowest-performing schools in Florida. Now it is touted by the state as having avoided the "COVID slide." Its grade improved from an F to an A this year. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Published Aug. 11
Updated Aug. 13

It’s official: Lakewood Elementary School, already hailed as a turnaround story in Pinellas County, has improved from an F to an A.

Gov. Ron DeSantis celebrated the St. Petersburg school’s state grade with an appearance there on Wednesday, accompanied by Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran.

“You’ve given all these students a foundation that they’re going to be able to build upon as they continue with their schooling,” DeSantis told school and district leaders in a televised event in which he also awarded some of the $1,000 bonus checks the state is giving teachers and first responders.

School staff members listen as Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a visit to Lakewood Elementary School on Wednesday.
School staff members listen as Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a visit to Lakewood Elementary School on Wednesday. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

“I have no doubt that the students here are going to have successful endeavors in their lives as a result of this.”

Related: Lakewood Elementary defies the ‘COVID slide’ with a burst of success

This wasn’t always the story for Lakewood, which last got an F grade in 2019, and for two of the five years before then.

Lakewood was one of five schools the Tampa Bay Times profiled in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series called Failure Factories in 2015. The other schools improved under the leadership of superintendent Mike Grego.

Success took longer at Lakewood.

In 2018, the state ordered that schools like Lakewood be given the option to work with educational consultants called “external operators.” The district hired Learning Sciences International. Grego also tapped Stephanie Woodford, a former Hillsborough County school administrator, as Lakewood’s new principal.

 Lakewood Elementary's former principal Stephanie Woodford
Lakewood Elementary's former principal Stephanie Woodford [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

Woodford and the consultants aimed to stem high teacher turnover, and the teacher retention rate grew to 90 percent. They allowed teachers to spend more time on individual subjects. They worked on student behavior and brought in social service resources to help with trauma at home.

They made enhanced use of year-long testing data, encouraging students to embrace the numbers and work toward individual goals.

When she was principal of Lakewood Elementary, Stephanie Woodford, now a district area superintendent, kept a whiteboard of Florida Standards Assessment data in her office. Teaching students to embracing test data was a strategy the school used to climb from an F to an A in the state grading system.
When she was principal of Lakewood Elementary, Stephanie Woodford, now a district area superintendent, kept a whiteboard of Florida Standards Assessment data in her office. Teaching students to embracing test data was a strategy the school used to climb from an F to an A in the state grading system. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

During the pandemic, Lakewood was also a school that encouraged students to come into the building instead of learning remotely. By January, Lakewood had 83 percent of its students learning in-person.

The school’s teachers were disappointed that they could not administer state tests, the Florida Standards Assessments, in 2020 because of COVID-19, Grego said. They wanted to show the improvements they had made. The following March, when Grego asked for a chance to seek a new grade, he predicted the school would earn a C or better.

It wound up with the A.

The state grading formula considers growth and improvement along with test scores, which can mask continued deficiencies in student skills. Posted test scores for 2021 show 39 percent of Lakewood’s students in grades 3 through 5 were reading at “satisfactory” levels or above for their grade, and 59 percent were at those levels in math.

Those numbers, about mid-range for the district, raise the question of how long Lakewood can remain an A school.

Grego assured DeSantis and Corcoran that “this school will remain a high-achieving school. This is not a fluke.” He pointed to the pride parents and students now have in the school. “Their hearts are filled with joy,” he said.

Ruth Morales, an English/language arts teacher, agreed that the students — now intently interested in their data — will respond to the new encouragement coming from someone other than their teacher. “I think now having those scores means so much more,” she said.

Gov. Ron DeSantis poses for a photo with teachers and staff during his visit to Lakewood Elementary School on Wednesday in St. Petersburg.
Gov. Ron DeSantis poses for a photo with teachers and staff during his visit to Lakewood Elementary School on Wednesday in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

There is also cause for celebration in kindergarten and first grade, which do not yet take the state tests but will in coming years. DeSantis on Wednesday recognized kindergarten teacher Brittany Duquaine, saying she brought virtually her entire class to proficiency last year, even though none of the students were considered kindergarten-ready when they entered school.

Woodford, now an area superintendent for the district, called the school’s turnaround the highlight of her career. When Lakewood had an F, she said, students did not realize how good it was.

It was exciting to see all of that turn around, she said. “I’m proud of the students.”