ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County’s most-struggling school is in the spotlight this week, as state education leaders meet in Tallahassee to decide its future following years of poor student performance.
The State Board of Education will vote Wednesday on whether Lakewood Elementary will remain under school district control or be turned over to an outside charter school company. That could happen if the F-rated school does not improve to a C when school grades are released this summer.
The latter would be a first in Pinellas — and another source of turbulence at Lakewood, which has endured significant turnover by teachers and principals in recent years. The school has been in partnership with a private school management company for two years, at the state’s direction, and Pinellas school leaders say there has been growth they want to see through.
Pinellas deputy superintendent of schools William Corbett said no district representatives will attend the state board meeting. But the district has appealed to the board to give it one more year to turn the school around — regardless of the school’s grade this year — arguing that more change is not best for Lakewood students.
“We believe it would be disruptive for that school community to have to go with a different plan," Corbett said. He added that the district recently heard from Florida public schools chancellor Jacob Oliva, who told district officials the state will likely grant the additional year.
Lakewood has been in “turnaround” status for years. It has not earned a grade higher than a D since 2012 and it was the lowest-performing elementary school in the state in the 2017-18 school year.
At first, the district kept efforts to improve the school completely in-house, under close watch by the state. Then a 2017 Florida law required any public school with three consecutive grades below a C to pick one of three options: close the school and reassign students elsewhere; reopen the school as a charter; or contract with an outside company to manage the school.
Pinellas chose the third option. Officials hired Learning Sciences International for the 2018-19 school year, and the management company stayed on this year.
Its recent assessment of Lakewood found problems with academics and discipline. Bad behavior, like classroom disruption, fighting, running away and destruction of property, is common on campus, and students have “profound foundational reading deficiencies.”
But the school has seen some growth, according to the district, improving on six of seven academic measurements last year. Still, that wasn’t enough to move from an F to a D.
Turnover has lessened, with just three teachers having to be replaced this school year, compared to 23 the year prior. And Corbett said principal Stephanie Woodford plans to stay in place, after taking over Lakewood in 2018. She is the school’s fourth principal in five years.
Lakewood’s lowest-performing students have been paired with teacher mentors, and school administration has implemented an aggressive attendance plan which includes home visits. Curriculums have been tweaked, and parents have been better looped in to bring a “community-minded” approach to turning the school around, according to the district’s appeal.
If the state board does not grant the district’s request and Lakewood is rated worse than a C this year, Corbett said the school district will be forced to find a suitable charter company to take it over. But he hopes neither scenario will take place.
“While we would love to be able to put a turnaround plan in place and see instant results … it doesn’t always happen,” he said. “So we’re doing what we believe is in the school’s best interest.”