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State education officials investigating Pinellas schools' spending on poor students

Shadows line the walkway as students line up outside in the courtyard as they prepare to participate in a no referral party at Lakewood Elementary School in October in St. Petersburg. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Sep. 16, 2015

The Florida Department of Education is reviewing how the Pinellas County school system spends federal dollars for poor children and whether all students get equal access to good teachers, according to a letter from federal education officials made public Tuesday.

The move is in response to U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, who last month called for a federal review of the "crisis" in south St. Petersburg's neighborhood elementary schools. She said that a Tampa Bay Times investigation raised serious questions about what's going on in five predominantly black schools.

In a letter sent Monday, federal education officials told Castor that the Florida Department of Education has the "primary responsibility" to review what's happening in Pinellas and that state officials had already started an investigation. That includes intensive monitoring, a review of how federal dollars are spent and making sure that all students are getting good teachers.

Federal officials "take these allegations very seriously," the letter said.

Reached late Tuesday, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education said she would respond to questions today. Castor, a Tampa Democrat whose district includes part of southern Pinellas County, couldn't be reached Tuesday.

The yearlong Times investigation, "Failure Factories," showed how the school district abandoned integration efforts in 2007 and then failed to follow through with promised resources for elementary schools that became predominantly poor and black. Today, the five schools — Melrose, Maximo, Fairmount Park, Campbell Park and Lakewood — are the county's most segregated and are failing at rates far worse than almost any other schools in Florida. Dozens of schools with similar demographics outperform them.

The Times also detailed how violence and disruption in the schools soared after 2007. Last year, there were more violent incidents in the five schools than in all of the county's 17 high schools combined.

Superintendent Mike Grego told the School Board during its work session Tuesday that it likely will take years to improve the schools and reform efforts should continue unabated.

Other Florida counties have had more success in struggling schools, but their reforms started 10 or more years ago, he said. Pinellas is using many of the same strategies, but started later.

"You have to stay the course," he said.

In a 51-page report given to board members, district officials said that students in the five schools are performing "significantly below" their peers and that frequent interruptions in classrooms are making it hard to teach and learn. Classroom outbursts are due, in part, to a lack of behavior management and "rigorous instruction," according to the report.

Many of the new interventions weren't in place until the latter half of the 2014-15 school year, the report said. Some teachers, for instance, still didn't have classroom aides in May. Dan Evans, the district's new head of the assessment, accountability and research office, told the School Board that means last year was, at best, a baseline.

"We really couldn't draw a lot of conclusions from year one," he said.

Some board members have criticized the Times for not focusing more on the recent efforts to improve the schools. Board chairwoman Linda Lerner said that the stories were "sensationalistic." But she referenced them Tuesday as she asked district administrators pointed questions about struggling students. She called the district's instruction "one-size-fits-all" and asked if district administrators had looked at other, more successful counties' strategies for the lowest performing students.

"I just don't see that we're addressing it," she said.

Board member Rene Flowers said she didn't want the district to keep changing programs because the schools already experienced a lot of change.

Despite the short time frame of recent reform efforts, Evans said there were some promising signs.

In four of the five schools last year, fewer third-graders failed the state's new standardized test for reading compared to the previous year on the old exam. At Fairmount Park, for instance, 45 percent of third-graders scored in the lowest level on the new test, a 13 percentage point improvement from the prior year. Districtwide, only 19 percent of third-graders tested in the bottom level.

Second-grade math scores were a bright spot, with all five schools improving on a district-administered standardized exam. At Campbell Park, those scores shot up 28 percentage points, to 61 percent of second-graders earning proficient or above. First-grade math scores also went up at four of the five schools.

Other results were more mixed. First-grade reading scores went up at Campbell Park, Fairmount Park and Lakewood, but went down at Maximo and Melrose. The scores overall were well below the district average.

Discipline referrals dropped significantly at three of the five schools. However, out-of-school suspensions jumped at three of the five schools. Nearly half of the referrals were for striking another student or fighting.

Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at cfitzpatrick@tampabay.com.

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