1. Education

Report: Inexperienced teachers a problem in south St. Petersburg schools, but improvements noted

Students gather outside Campbell Park Elementary before the start of school in April 2015. Using data from that year, the state Department of Education found that 30 to 40 percent of the teaching staff at Campbell Park and four other south St. Petersburg elementary schools had three years of experience or less in the 2014-15 school year. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Aug. 23, 2016

Students at five failing elementary schools in St. Petersburg's black neighborhoods were far more likely to be taught by an inexperienced teacher than students enrolled in higher-performing schools in Pinellas County, a state review has found.

State officials found that teachers who had three years of experience or less accounted for 30 to 40 percent of the staff at Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose elementary schools. At some higher-ranked schools, that number was between 4 and 8 percent. State officials reviewed teacher data from the 2014-15 school year.

The state review, released this month, echoed a yearlong Tampa Bay Times investigation, "Failure Factories," which 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 black and impoverished. The Times found that more than 100 teachers with 10 or more years' experience fled the five schools, only to be replaced by less senior teachers. More than half of those teachers quit each year.

Research shows that teachers are less effective in their first three years of teaching. Students in the five schools, most of whom live in poverty, are among the neediest in the county.

Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego said that the number of veteran teachers in the five schools has gone up in the past two years. District officials have increased pay incentives to attract experienced teachers, held job fairs for the seven lowest-performing schools, and created a "transformation team" to oversee improvement efforts.

"We continue to implement those strategies," he said.

For the academic year that began this month, the district does not yet have data on the number of teachers in the schools with three years or less of experience. But officials did provide figures for the number of first-year teachers at some of the schools. For instance, three of the 40 teachers at Maximo Elementary are in their first year. At Fairmount Park, it was seven out of 53 teachers, and at Campbell Park, four out of 53.

Grego said he was "thrilled" by the report overall, however, because state officials found no major problems in the district's program to support impoverished students. In the report, district officials were praised for a "positive shift" in the oversight of the federally funded program. State officials also noted the "effective communication" of district administrators and the "significant investment" the district made last year by hiring TNTP, a national nonprofit, to train teachers and administrators in the five schools.

Most of the state review was limited to a one-year period, according to the Florida Department of Education. The department reviewed the 2014-15 school year for teacher experience and the previous three years for financial information. State officials found no problems with how the district used federal funds for poor children in the past two years. They still are reviewing the 2013-14 school year.

The department started its review of the program nearly a year ago, after a request by U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor. The Tampa Democrat, whose district used to include part of southern Pinellas, asked for an investigation of what she called the "crisis" in the schools.

A separate civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Education is ongoing. That investigation is focused more on whether black children are being systematically discriminated against in Pinellas.

In a written statement, Castor said that the state has the primary responsibility to answer questions about how Pinellas used federal dollars for children in poverty. Based on the report, that question "remains unclear."

"I am frustrated at the pace of these investigations, but am pleased that the school district has made positive changes to benefit the students in south St. Petersburg. Overall progress will require sustained efforts and significant community support," she said.

The Times series, which analyzed nearly a decade of financial data, found that four of the five elementary schools in south St. Petersburg were funded erratically after 2007, despite promises that they would get more money than other schools. A few of the schools received less money in some years, even with additional federal funds.

Grego dramatically increased the amount of money flowing to the five schools after he was hired in 2012. The state didn't review years before his arrival.

State officials provided some recommendations to the school district. They found that some school administrators didn't fully understand how the federal funds could be spent. They also suggested that the school district distribute federal money to schools based on need rather than a set amount. Lower-performing schools appeared to have a greater need, but received the same as other schools in the federal program, officials found.

District officials have until later this month to alert the state to any errors in the report.

Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at Follow @Fitz_ly.


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