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Principals at five failing Pinellas schools claim improvements in teacher turnover, discipline

Answering questions, from left, are Lakewood principal Cynthia Kidd, Maximo principal LaKisha Falana, Melrose principal Nanette Grasso and Campbell Park principal Robert Ovalle.
Answering questions, from left, are Lakewood principal Cynthia Kidd, Maximo principal LaKisha Falana, Melrose principal Nanette Grasso and Campbell Park principal Robert Ovalle.
Published Sep. 3, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Principals of five failing elementary schools on the city's south side are pointing to a decrease in teacher turnover and a drop in student discipline referrals as evidence that the schools are improving.

Their comments, made Wednesday at a packed meeting with leaders of the county's black community, were the first in public by the schools' leaders since the Tampa Bay Times published an investigation focusing on their schools.

The series, "Failure Factories," traced the role of the Pinellas County School Board in remaking the elementary schools — Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose — into five of the worst in Florida.

It showed that the board resegregated the schools in 2007 and then for years failed to deliver promised money and resources as the schools got steadily worse.

"There's always two sides to the story," Campbell Park principal Robert Ovalle said of the Times report. "They didn't represent everything that went on in my school."

Lakewood principal Cynthia Kidd said turnover — a chronic problem at the schools in the past eight years — is down dramatically at her school. "I'm proud to say that my staff stayed with me this year," Kidd said. "No one opted out. To me, that says a lot."

Maximo principal LaKisha Falana, told a similar story. "When I walked into Maximo last year, I had to hire 50 percent of my staff. This year, I do not have that level of turnover," Falana told the group.

Nanette Grasso noted that the district has added a music room and a science lab to her school, Melrose Elementary, as well as new lighting, fresh paint and smart boards for classrooms.

Fairmount Park principal Nina Pollauf called the Times stories "overblown" — but didn't elaborate. "We have and keep the very best teachers," she said. "They are young, many of them are young. But just because they don't have 10 or 15 years experience doesn't mean they're not the highest quality teachers."

The principals were speaking Wednesday at a meeting of the Concerned Organization for the Quality Education of Black Students, a community group that served as a plaintiff in a 2000 lawsuit alleging the district was denying black children a decent education.

District leaders regularly meet with the group as part of a settlement agreement reached in 2010.

The only School Board member present Wednesday was chairwoman Linda Lerner, who was among the five members who voted for a neighborhood schools enrollment plan in December 2007 — a move that effectively resegregated the district. She urged the crowd to look forward, not backward.

Not at the meeting was superintendent Mike Grego, who met with members of the black community in a hastily called forum on Aug. 21.

His No. 2, Bill Corbett, tried to reassure the group that the district was working on the problem.

"I want to assure you that we hear you. We don't deny the facts," Corbett said. "We know we have a lot of work to do."

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Staff writer Colleen Wright contributed to this report. Contact Michael LaForgia at mlaforgia@tampabay.com. Follow him @laforgia_.

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