Rescue mission: Midtown Academy hopes a new theme will lead to better performance

A section of Midtown Academy’s plan for the coming school year, as brainstormed by educators and parents and illustrated by assistant principal Dallas Jackson, who brings to life the “Come Soar With Us” theme.
A section of Midtown Academy’s plan for the coming school year, as brainstormed by educators and parents and illustrated by assistant principal Dallas Jackson, who brings to life the “Come Soar With Us” theme.
Published May 4, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — Midtown Academy was born out of necessity.

Pinellas County school officials had rushed to convert University Preparatory Academy, a failed charter school, into a district-run program to avoid displacing more than 400 students. It was three weeks before the start of the school year. They would work out the details later.

This spring, with Midtown reaching the end of its inaugural year, "later" has arrived. And, as administrators work to develop a long-term plan, it is clear that the combined elementary and middle school with an anemic enrollment has a long way to go.

The conversion, "was done in the best interest of the students," said district spokeswoman Melanie Parra. "Now we have time to look at it and see what's going to make it most successful moving forward."

The school, once the home of Southside Fundamental Middle, is here to stay, says deputy superintendent Bill Corbett. The Pinellas County School Board on Tuesday will consider buying back the property for $3.86 million, even as the school's enrollment dipped from an official count in October of 321 to 285 in April.

In January, Midtown debuted on the district's list of magnet application programs as a school focused on parental involvement and family engagement in a smaller setting. The theme was not a hit.

The school has space for 36 kindergarten students but only 13 accepted invitations to attend. The middle school program has 54 available seats, but only 38 students applied and just eight accepted invitations.

Corbett likened those low numbers to the opening of Largo High's International Baccalaureate program, which launched in 2011 with only half of its 100 seats filled. This year, 115 students accepted invitations for 150 available seats.

"Any time you do a school of choice or a choice program, it always builds over time," Corbett said. "Now we're trying to find a theme (for Midtown). The intent will be, yes, to add more kids to it because it's definitely not full."

Ideas for a new theme come to life on the conference room walls inside Midtown's administrative office. Principal Portia Slaughter hosts parent meetings to brainstorm ideas, and assistant principal Dallas Jackson, who moonlights as an artist, illustrates them on big sheets of parchment paper.

The ideas vary from dance and video games to STEM and American Sign Language. Slaughter believes she's found a way to incorporate parents' ideas into the classroom by hosting "enrichment clusters" once a week, where students learn about an idea and demonstrate their knowledge through a project of their choosing.

She has already picked a theme of aviation with a motto "Come Soar With Us" for the 2017-18 school year. A student interested in graphic arts, for example, might choose to design a brochure for "Midtown Airlines." Slaughter also is looking to create community partnerships with those in the aviation industry, like having a pilot visit students.

"By the time they get to eighth grade," Slaughter said, "they would've experienced a multitude of things," that prepare students for a magnet high school program.

Midtown is also looking to adapt a school-wide enrichment model, which is already used in some Pinellas schools to encourage creative teaching methods that are sometimes reserved for gifted children. The model also aims to seek out gifted students who are disadvantaged.

Measures of Academic Progress assessments, which are considered predictors for how students will perform on the Florida Standards Assessments, show that Midtown still lags behind other historically low-performing schools in almost every grade level in math and science. Last year, when the school was still University Prep, students had proficiency scores as low as single digits.

"We've made some growth. Not as much as we want," Slaughter said. "We're doing something right."

Contact Colleen Wright at or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.