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Officials announce stepped-up efforts after Times' Failure Factories schools investigation

After a Tampa Bay Times investigation found that years of neglect turned five predominantly black elementary schools into some of the worst schools in Florida, Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego announced that he plans to convert three of the schools into magnet programs. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
After a Tampa Bay Times investigation found that years of neglect turned five predominantly black elementary schools into some of the worst schools in Florida, Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego announced that he plans to convert three of the schools into magnet programs. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Aug. 18, 2015

Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego has announced a plan to convert three of five failing elementary schools in St. Petersburg's black neighborhoods into magnet programs, even as city and county leaders reacted to a Tampa Bay Times investigation that found years of neglect turned the schools into some of the worst in Florida.

The proposal could mean additional resources and even facility upgrades for the schools. If successful, the magnet programs could create racial balance at schools that last year were as much as 86 percent black.

Grego called it a "needed step" to address the lagging academic achievement in south St. Petersburg.

"We're dealing with trying to undo and re-engineer some of the decisions that have been made," he said.

The Times investigation, "Failure Factories," has drawn national attention and prompted an outcry in Pinellas since it published last week.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said the community should be "truly outraged." She said that she plans to ask the U.S. Department of Education to review how the school district spends federal dollars meant to help poor children.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said that he was "deeply troubled" by details revealed in the story. He added a new director of education and community engagement to the budget being voted on next month. He said Monday that the city position will "give priority to those five schools."

The Times investigation detailed how the district abandoned integration efforts in 2007, then failed to follow through with promised new resources for schools that became mostly black and poor.

Today, the county's most segregated schools — Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose — are failing at rates far worse than almost any other schools in the state.

Former St. Petersburg police Chief Goliath Davis said members of the black community have raised these issues repeatedly with School Board members, district administrators and city leaders.

"Every point that you brought up in that article, none of them should have been news to them," Davis said. "There's nothing in that article that they don't know about or haven't heard anything about."

Last week, school district officials launched a public relations campaign outlining recent efforts to improve student performance at the five schools.

They released the first in an ongoing "documentary series" called "The Road to Transformation." A district spokesman featured in the video said the schools had elicited "a sense pride and belonging." In a lengthy post on the district's website, the schools were described as "lively places where hundreds of optimistic and determined staff and students work and learn each day."

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Grego said Monday that district officials have been working for at least a year on plans to turn three of the five schools into magnet programs. He said he kept details about the proposal quiet because he plans to apply early next year for a competitive federal grant. The district will create the magnet programs even if it does not win grant money, Grego said.

The district has not yet sorted out most of the details for the programs, which Grego said could take three years to launch. Grego talked to the School Board about the plans during last week's work session.

Lakewood would start an International Baccalaureate program, while Fairmount Park would focus on STEAM, or Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math. Maximo would start an entrepreneurship and leadership program.

Campbell Park would remain a neighborhood school. Melrose already is a magnet school, but its journalism program has failed to attract families outside the neighborhood. Grego said that program needs to be reviewed and possibly changed.

Davis, who said black leaders have repeatedly raised issues about student achievement with district and local leaders, called Grego's plan a "knee-jerk reaction rather than a comprehensive plan to attack the real problems."

Lakewood, Maximo and Campbell Park had magnet programs in the past that weren't successful. They, too, were supported by a federal grant. The programs drew students from southern Pinellas, not the entire county.

Grego said the district was studying those efforts to learn what didn't work, and that the proposed magnets would be patterned after successful countywide magnets, such as Douglas L. Jamerson Elementary and Sanderlin PK-8 IB World School. Both A-rated schools are located in black neighborhoods, but have diverse student populations.

School Board member Carol Cook said she supports the plan for new magnet programs.

"Do I believe that just because a white student is sitting next to an African American student, it is going to make a difference? No. But if we're putting in something high-rigor, something where they can take ownership over their education as well as teachers delivering rigorous instruction, yes, I think that will make a difference," she said.

The Times investigation, a year-long effort by a team of reporters, found that the five elementary schools in St. Petersburg's black neighborhoods were performing close to the state average on state exams when the School Board voted to end integration in 2007.

In 2014, 95 percent of black students tested at the schools failed reading or math, making the black neighborhoods in southern Pinellas County the most concentrated site of academic failure in all of Florida.

All five schools are located within six square miles.

The problem, a recent phenomenon, isn't explained by poverty alone. One hundred eighty-four elementary schools in Florida are as poor or poorer than Pinellas' worst schools. All but seven outperformed the schools academically, the Times found.

Grego, who was hired in 2012, began pumping more money into the schools last year, adding classroom aides, mental health counselors and liaisons to connect families with social services. He said that effort will continue until the schools — all F-rated — earn and maintain A grades. He said the district needs to "stay the course."

Staff writers Lisa Gartner and Michael LaForgia contributed to this report. Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at Follow @Fitz_ly.