1. The Education Gradebook

Pinellas targets 11 low-achieving schools for a 'fresh approach'

Pinellas County officials are quietly analyzing student data at 11 schools, considering new curricula and possibly even new magnet programs to make the underachieving campuses more attractive to parents and children.

A team of 11 administrators, including superintendent Michael Grego, met this week to discuss the schools' absentee and suspension rates, FCAT performance and demographic information about the students. The administrators plan to meet again.

But while their work could significantly impact more than 7,500 students, Grego said through a spokeswoman that "it is too early in the process to discuss this group" with the public.

Besides Grego, the committee includes a demographer and administrators who oversee instruction, student discipline, charter schools, transportation, school police, food service and several other academic areas.

The principals of these schools have not formally been brought into the discussion, spokeswoman Melanie Marquez Parra said. "So far, this process has been the group members looking at data."

For example, a summary prepared on Maximo Elementary highlights that only 10 percent of students there are reading at grade level and 91 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, the school system's indicator of poverty. Other documents pinpoint the number of students living with one parent or with a grandparent.

According to a memo from the school district's communications staff to School Board members, the group has focused on these numbers for a reason. They've selected "11 schools that could benefit from a fresh approach, including new initiatives and curriculum and magnet attractors, to boost achievement and attract high-performing students."

The schools include seven elementaries — Belleair, Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo, Melrose and Sandy Lane — and four middle schools: Azaelea, Bay Point, John Hopkins and Pinellas Park.

The memo says that "committee members will be identifying potential barriers that may exist and how enhancements at the schools will attract high performing students from each school zone."

Several of the 11 schools already have magnet programs, but have struggled to enroll students. Only one student accepted an invitation to Melrose Elementary's Center for Journalism and Multimedia, leaving 13 kindergarten seats open for next year.w

The arts magnet at John Hopkins Middle enrolled fewer than half of its open seats, while the journalism magnet enrolled only 19 new students, leaving 131 openings.

Barry Brown, the principal of John Hopkins, said he was unaware the district was focusing on his school.

Brown said he feels supported by the district and that many of Grego's new initiatives, such as an expansive summer program for struggling students, are "a breath of fresh air." But he declined to say whether he was interested in seeing a new magnet program or change in curriculum at John Hopkins.

"I don't want to talk out of place," Brown said.

Part of the reason his magnet programs were under-enrolled, Brown said, was the abundance of special programs available to parents and children.

School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook said she was happy to hear the district was zeroing in on the 11 schools. "Those are where our most struggling students are at this point, so I know there's a laser-like focus on achievement and anything we can to do for that is definitely worth exploring," she said.

Cook said she had not known about the committee or its work, but said she was confident the team would in time bring proposals to the School Board.

"If they're putting in magnet programs and that type of thing, it could have a budget impact, and that's our responsibility and oversight," Cook said.

Lisa Gartner can be reached at You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).