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  1. Education

Pinellas downplays problems at failing schools, but hires leader to fix them

Mike Grego, Pinellas County school superintendent (in background on left), looks on as Pastor Martin Rainey addresses the audience during a workshop evening at John Hopkins Middle School Center for the Arts, Journalism and Multimedia. (November 17, 2014)
Mike Grego, Pinellas County school superintendent (in background on left), looks on as Pastor Martin Rainey addresses the audience during a workshop evening at John Hopkins Middle School Center for the Arts, Journalism and Multimedia. (November 17, 2014)
Published Dec. 9, 2015

LARGO — The Pinellas County School Board on Tuesday aired a video in which local business leaders praised district officials and downplayed the troubles at five failing elementary schools in south St. Petersburg. Minutes later, however, board members voted to hire a new administrator whose job will be to help turn those schools around.

The moves sent conflicting signals about how board members view the condition of the five schools, even as superintendent Mike Grego works to fix them.

Board member Linda Lerner said the video shows "what's really happening."

But key members of St. Petersburg's black community said that the district isn't doing enough. Lawyers for Concerned Organization for Quality Education of Black Students, known as COQEBS, filed a motion Tuesday to resurrect a 15-year-old classaction lawsuit, saying the school district has fallen down on legal commitments to aid struggling black students districtwide.

Lerner said that board members were instructed by the district's attorney not to comment on the legal action.

The yearlong Tampa Bay 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 — Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose — 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 series also detailed how violence and disruption in the schools soared and experienced teachers fled after 2007. Last year, there were more violent incidents in the five schools than in all of the county's 17 high schools combined.

In the two-minute video shown at Tuesday's board meeting, Pinellas Education Foundation chairwoman Cathy Collins said the reports caused some of the group's members to worry about what they would see on a bus tour last month to Campbell Park and Maximo. Foundation members spent about an hour at each school. They visited classrooms, spoke to some teachers and students, and watched a dance performance at Maximo.

"I was pretty confident that things would be in order and that there was progress being made, because I have watched the leadership of Mike Grego over the last three years, and he is a true leader," Collins said in the video. "And there is no way that some of the issues that were described in those articles were going on in those schools."

Reached by phone Tuesday, Collins said the tour was the first time she had been in any of the five schools. She said she was pleased to see that the two schools on the tour were "amazingly clean and well put together."

"Melrose was like a college campus," she said.

When a reporter reminded Collins that she had been at Maximo, not Melrose, she said her description of the school as a college campus "might be overstating it." She said she couldn't "validate" data used by the state Department of Education to rank the five schools in the bottom 15 of all elementary schools in Florida.

"We were just doing a tour of the physical plant," she said. "We felt good about what we saw."

Debra Faulk, a foundation member, said in the video that the schools had been "represented" as underperforming, but "we saw just the opposite." Faulk couldn't be reached for comment.

After the video played, Lerner read aloud a few sentences from a letter written by foundation member Alex McKenna. In it, McKenna wrote that the "public is being held hostage to information which does a disservice to children" and said it was time to "debunk the Failure Factories myth."

Reached on Tuesday, McKenna said that he, too, hadn't visited any of the schools before the guided tour. He also was impressed by how clean they were. He said he couldn't speak to test scores and discipline referrals.

He said he could only comment about what he saw — happy teachers and engaged students.

"Overall, there's a movement here that says progress," he said. "I saw more success there than failure. Maybe I'm wrong."

The foundation is funding 25 Florida prepaid college scholarships for students in the five schools through its Take Stock in Children program.

After the board meeting Tuesday, Grego said there shouldn't be any confusion about how much work needs to be done to improve the schools. He said the purpose of the video was to highlight the positive experiences that foundation members had on the tour.

"Everything is not fine. I don't think anyone thinks that. I hope nobody walks away with that," he said.

Grego said that the role of the new administrator hired Tuesday will be to oversee improvement efforts in the schools and build on the work that's already taking place. As director of school leadership, Antonio Burt, a former principal and "turnaround" leader, will provide "day-to-day guidance" to principals, help recruit and retain good teachers, and monitor academic progress. His annual salary will be about $98,000.

The board approved the hiring with no discussion.

Burt most recently served as an administrator in Tennessee's Achievement School District, which was created to improve the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state.

Ricardo Davis, head of COQEBS, said on Monday that were was a "lack of clarity" about how the new role would fit into other district initiatives. But he said the issue of black student achievement wasn't limited to the five schools and there hasn't been enough improvement over the years.

Because of that, COQEBS, the plaintiff in Crowley vs. the Pinellas County School Board, is asking a state judge to force the school district to spend more money and resources on closing the gap in test scores between black students and other students in the district.

"The School Board, despite five years of negotiations with COQEBS, has failed and refused to find programs and ways to reduce and eliminate the achievement gap," the group's attorney, Guy Burns, wrote in the court motion filed Tuesday. "The Florida Constitution's promise of a high quality education has been broken, and the problem is both chronic and urgent."

A judge has yet to schedule a hearing on the motion.

Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at cfitzpatrick@tampabay.com.

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