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  1. Education

Pinellas moving fast to replace teachers in troubled schools

Antonio Burt, who was hired by the Pinellas County School District to oversee improvement efforts at the county's five lowest-performing elementary schools, pictured during a monthly meeting of Concerned Organization for Quality Education of Black Students, or COQEBS. The community group is the plaintiff in the 15-year-old class-action case, Crowley vs. the Pinellas County School Board.
Antonio Burt, who was hired by the Pinellas County School District to oversee improvement efforts at the county's five lowest-performing elementary schools, pictured during a monthly meeting of Concerned Organization for Quality Education of Black Students, or COQEBS. The community group is the plaintiff in the 15-year-old class-action case, Crowley vs. the Pinellas County School Board.
Published May 16, 2016

Striding through the halls of Maximo Elementary, Valencia Walker grabbed hands and resumes, hustling job candidate after job candidate into classrooms for interviews.

"I'm going to make sure that everyone here gets an interview. If you don't mind waiting until 10 p.m. we'll get it done," she told Angelia Mount, a 25-year veteran teacher, before darting after another candidate.

With the school year drawing to a close, the Pinellas County School District is moving fast to replace dozens of teachers on five troubled campuses in south St. Petersburg. As of last week, more than 80 teachers had requested a transfer or were told they couldn't return to Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose elementary schools. Four out of five principals also were moved to new schools for the 2016-17 school year.

To help fill spots, the district held its first job fair for "turnaround" schools. More than 150 people turned out for the event at Maximo last week. Of those, 26 were recommended for hire.

Superintendent Mike Grego and Antonio Burt, the district's new director of transformation, welcomed teachers. And while Walker isn't officially in her new role on the transformation team, she still worked the halls, matching candidates with schools. Also represented at the job fair were High Point and Sandy Lane elementary schools.

"Our turnout was just wonderful," said Walker, assistant director of human resources and professional development for the district. "I got goose bumps."

Like many of the other teacher prospects, Mount said she was up for the challenge.

She's not sure she would leave Rawlings Elementary, where she teaches fifth grade and is happy. But she said that she was drawn by the district's new efforts in struggling schools.

"You get kind of tired of the terrible things that are published and I thought, 'Are we going to step up and do something about it?' " she said.

Deputy superintendent Bill Corbett said no one will lose their job altogether in the schools. Teachers will be transferred. But the process has caused concern in the community.

Mike Gandolfo, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, called the process a "hatchet job" in which some teachers were forced out after initially being told they could stay. He said most of the teachers leaving were doing so out of "fear and frustration."

"I don't know how you're going to fill all these spots," he said.

The churn of school personnel has become a familiar pattern for families. The five elementaries have been plagued with teacher turnover since a 2007 vote by the School Board to abandon integration efforts in Pinellas County. As reported in a yearlong Tampa Bay Times investigation, "Failure Factories," more than 100 teachers with 10 or more years of experience left in the years following the vote. Turnover rose from about 23 percent of teachers per year — only a little higher than northside schools — to more than half.

District leaders are trying to attract veteran teachers by paying $18,000 to $25,000 more a year to work in the five schools. To earn more money, however, teachers will have to work a longer school day, participate in extra training and teach summer school. Teachers with fewer years of experience won't make nearly that much more.

Cory Vilardi, a third-grade teacher at Fairmount Park, won't get most of the extra money. He also will lose more time in the evening with his 18-month-old daughter when the school goes to a longer day. But he said he never considered leaving.

"I'm fully committed to staying at Fairmount Park," he said.

As of Wednesday, the school was losing the most teachers, with 25 leaving or being forced out, according to the school district. Melrose was second-highest, with 19 teachers leaving. Lakewood lost 17. Campbell Park lost 15, while Maximo lost 12. Those numbers are changing every day, according to the district.

At Sandy Lane and High Point, teachers won't get the same extra incentives as the five schools in south St. Petersburg. Sandy Lane lost 18 teachers, while High Point lost 11, as of Wednesday.

Corbett said the goal is to put the best teachers in front of students. To make that determination, principals in the five schools are working with Burt and an area superintendent to review test scores, professional evaluations and statewide test data. The group will reach a consensus on which candidates to hire, but the final decisions will rest with the principals, Corbett said.

Other Pinellas schools under state oversight also are replacing teachers for the coming school year. Azalea Middle has to replace about 20 teachers, while Gulfport Elementary needs about 25, according to the school district.

At the job fair, Louis Bruno, 24, received the Walker treatment, finding himself hurried into a classroom for an interview with an area superintendent. He will finish a master's degree in special education later this year and has been working as a classroom assistant at Ponce de Leon Elementary. He's hoping to find his first teaching job.

"I'm looking for anyone that will hire me," he said.

Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at cfitzpatrick@tampabay.com. Follow @Fitz_ly.

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