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Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego moves to overhaul leadership at troubled schools

Students line up to participate in a no-referral party at Lakewood Elementary, one of the “Failure Factories” schools
Students line up to participate in a no-referral party at Lakewood Elementary, one of the “Failure Factories” schools
Published Apr. 27, 2016

LARGO — Principals at three of five failing elementary schools will be replaced at the end of the school year, the latest of several major steps being taken to transform the south St. Petersburg campuses, superintendent Mike Grego announced late Tuesday.

Melrose, the lowest-performing elementary school in Florida, will get a new principal. So will Campbell Park and Fairmount Park. No decision has been made about the principals at Maximo and Lakewood.

Grego, who announced the changes at the start of a School Board meeting, also named two assistant directors for the district's new eight-member transformation team, which will lead reform efforts in Pinellas County's seven lowest-performing schools. Two educators, Valencia Walker and Yvette McLean-Pilliner, will fill the roles effective July 1.

"Our work on this issue certainly is not done," Grego said, alluding to a series of recommendations made earlier this month for turnaround schools, including extending the school day and giving teachers in the schools the opportunity to earn up to $25,000 more.

The five schools were at the heart of "Failure Factories," a yearlong investigation by the Tampa Bay Times, which showed how the district effectively resegregated the schools and then broke promises of money and resources. The schools now are failing at rates worse than almost any other schools in Florida.

Prompted by the series, the U.S. Department of Education opened a civil rights investigation this month into whether the school district systematically discriminates against black children.

Changes in leadership at the schools, though announced suddenly Tuesday, weren't unexpected.

Deputy superintendent Bill Corbett said earlier this month that it was a possibility, and the district had posted a job advertisement for turnaround principals for both elementary and middle schools. District leaders said Tuesday that they conducted a national search for three weeks and received about 100 applications for "multiple positions." Corbett said the search is continuing.

Despite the national search, only one principal announced Tuesday came from outside Pinellas.

Nikita Reed, principal of Memphis Academy of Health Sciences Middle School, will replace Nanette Grasso at Melrose. Grasso will move to Seminole Elementary.

At Campbell Park, Christine Hoffman, that school's assistant principal, will replace Rob Ovalle. He's moving to Mount Vernon Elementary. At Fairmount Park, Kristy Moody, principal of Jamerson Elementary, will replace Nina Pollauf. She will move to Shore Acres Elementary.

The five schools have had a revolving door of principals over the years, prompted by a combination of promotions and state intervention. This will be the fifth principal for Melrose and Campbell Park in about a decade and the fourth for Fairmount Park. Grasso, Pollauf and Ovalle each had been at their respective schools for about three years.

Corbett said research shows that a school turnaround should take about three years.

"This is extremely difficult work," he said. "We get someone in place, we give them a few years. . . . It's time for a change in leadership to bring it to the next level."

Ricardo Davis, president of the Concerned Organization for Quality Education of Black Students, said Tuesday that it's "too easy" to blame principals and teachers when schools don't improve.

"If your conclusion is that we don't have the right people in those schools, given the challenges — well, you put them there," he said.

Grego said the principal changes shouldn't be viewed as a sign of failure. He called it a "continuation of improvement."

India Johnson, whose daughter is in the fifth grade at Jamerson, said Moody was an excellent principal who listened to parents and responded quickly to concerns. One night, Johnson emailed Moody about a problem her daughter was having with another child. Johnson said Moody replied within minutes and addressed the situation first thing the next morning. A replacement for Moody hasn't been named.

Johnson said she hoped Moody would be given the tools to succeed at Fairmount Park.

"She's a good person (but) she's going to need a lot of support. It will take more than just her, I'll tell you that. I hope they have a plan," she said.

The district also announced other principal changes Tuesday. Willette Houston, assistant principal at Bear Creek Elementary, will take over the school following the retirement of Delores Wesley. Jessley Hathaway, principal of Walsingham Elementary, will replace James Pribble at Gulfport Elementary. Pribble will become an assistant principal at Frontier Elementary. And Michael Feeney, principal of Oldsmar Elementary, will replace Susan Taylor at High Point Elementary. She will lead Southern Oak Elementary.

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

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