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Facing outside pressure after 'Failure Factories,' Pinellas proposes sweeping fixes to schools

The Pinellas County school system would undergo a major overhaul under a new proposal aimed at repairing the damage done to schools in St. Petersburg's black neighborhoods after years of neglect.

District leaders released a broad set of recommendations late Tuesday that include hiring a minority achievement officer, creating special centers for students suspended out of school, and establishing a "transformation zone" with intense support for Pinellas' failing elementary schools. That includes paying teachers up to $25,000 more a year, a longer school day and more control over the curriculum and schedule.

Superintendent Mike Grego will discuss the proposals with the School Board next week. The latest efforts, though still evolving, will fit into existing plans, he said. Details about the cost and logistics, such as changes to bus schedules, still need to be worked out.

"We're working to tie all of these things together so that it's not complex and it's not confusing," Grego said.

The school district has faced intense scrutiny from two investigations and two legal challenges prompted by "Failure Factories," a yearlong investigation by the Tampa Bay Times that showed how the district abandoned integration efforts in 2007 and then broke promises of money and resources for elementary schools that became overwhelmingly poor and black. The schools — Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose — are failing at rates worse than almost any other schools in Florida.

FAILURE FACTORIES: How five once-average schools were turned into the worst in Florida

The series also found that black students in Pinellas are suspended out of school at four times the rate of other children — one of the largest disparities in Florida — and that black students are largely shut out of the school system's best public schools.

In the wake of the series, the plaintiffs in separate lawsuits, one in federal court and one in state court, have sought to renew court action against the district for shortchanging black students. The state Department of Education has taken the lead on a review of how the school district spent federal money for impoverished students.

And on Monday, the U.S. Department of Education opened a civil rights investigation into whether the school district systematically discriminates against black children.

Grego said Tuesday that he would work with federal investigators and "see what we can learn from that review."

Since his arrival in 2012, Grego has launched reforms to aid students in the five elementary schools, including adding extending learning programs, extra summer instruction and bringing in counselors and social workers to connect families with outside services. He also has dramatically increased the money being spent on the schools.

Many of the proposals unveiled Tuesday were identified by the Times series as strategies used in other large, urban districts in Florida that had higher passing rates among black children. That includes hiring a minority achievement officer, tracking students' progress in real time, operating "success centers" to prevent students suspended out of school from losing class time, and offering big bonuses to attract high-quality teachers to tough schools.

Grego hired Antonio Burt, a turnaround leader and former principal in Memphis, Tenn., late last year to oversee reform efforts at the five elementary schools. Last month, he added two more schools to Burt's responsibilities — Sandy Lane Elementary and High Point Elementary in Clearwater — and said he would provide him with an eight-person team.

Burt, who helped put together the latest proposals, will remain focused on the elementary schools, Grego said.

"We want to keep him on the ground in those schools," he said.

It was Burt who last week disclosed some details of the plan, most notably the pay increase of up to $25,000 for teachers in the schools. On Tuesday, the district provided more details, saying teachers would work a nine-hour day with flexible planning time so they could do some work at home.

The new minority achievement officer will be responsible for looking at systemic issues, such as the achievement gap and discipline disparities for all minority children. Grego said that creating the new position, something he previously rejected, was not a "change in philosophy."

According to materials prepared for the School Board, the latest recommendations were developed after an "extensive" review of turnaround strategies and feedback from largely private meetings held recently with teachers, staff and parents in the five schools and some community members.

Teachers asked for more support to deal with extreme student behavior and students who are behind academically.

Staff Writer Lisa Gartner contributed to this story. Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at Follow @Fitz_ly.