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How to turn around a failing school? St. Pete’s Lakewood Elementary is on the right path | Editorial
The school still has many challenges, but despite the challenges of the COVID crisis, it is headed in a better direction.
Lakewood Elementary School kindergartners Kennedi Flournoy, 5, (right, front) and Heavenlei McKinnie, 5, (left) work on sight words. Lakewood was one of the lowest performing schools in the state of Florida. Now it's one of the schools touted by the state as having avoided the COVID-slide, and is on its way to strong accountability performance.
Lakewood Elementary School kindergartners Kennedi Flournoy, 5, (right, front) and Heavenlei McKinnie, 5, (left) work on sight words. Lakewood was one of the lowest performing schools in the state of Florida. Now it's one of the schools touted by the state as having avoided the COVID-slide, and is on its way to strong accountability performance. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published May 14

At Lakewood Elementary in St. Petersburg, students have goals and work daily toward them, teachers are motivated in their jobs, and the school, led by an innovative principal, is figuring out how to succeed. That’s an all-too-rare outcome in the county’s poorest public schools. But Lakewood’s story shows that educational achievement isn’t limited to certain ZIP codes, and it proves that turning around struggling schools is worth the effort, no matter how many tries it takes.

Tampa Bay Times education writer Jeffrey Solochek chronicled the steady climb at Lakewood, which earns perennial F’s from the state and checks every box for a failing school: a heavily poor and minority student body; high teacher turnover; rampant discipline problems and test scores ranking among the state’s worst.

Many Times readers will recall that Lakewood was one of five elementary schools that plummeted into chaos and failure after the Pinellas school board reversed its policy on integrating schools and never followed up with extra money or support. The Times’ 2015 Failure Factories investigation revealed how students at Lakewood and four other south St. Petersburg schools were allowed to fail, year after year, with little response from local leaders. The good teachers fled as the schools became chaotic and even violent. In short, Lakewood’s past and present offered little hope for its future.

And yet.

Following another F from the state, Lakewood was required to follow a state-mandated plan that included hiring a principal who had experience turning around other struggling schools. Stephanie Woodford cleared the slate and began to rebuild Lakewood from the ground up. She and an assistant principal overhauled class schedules to let teachers focus on single subjects. They put renewed attention on the pre-K and kindergarten programs so Lakewood students would have a solid foundation from which to learn. And they attended to students’ lives and struggles outside the classroom, bringing in behavior specialists and other counselors, which led to fewer discipline problems. That holistic and unrestrained approach appears to have set the stage for gains that matter most: in the classroom.

Perhaps Woodford’s boldest move was to use data to track every child’s progress — and do so publicly. That meant charts on white boards and constant conversations about individual students’ strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures. It was a potentially risky move given how standardized approaches to learning and testing have produced negative results for millions of minority children nationally. But among the close-knit staff at Lakewood, seeing real-time data has served as daily motivation — and sparked buy-in from students.

A fourth-grader who had trouble paying attention and regularly ran out of class raised his grades and earned a spot on Lakewood’s “Success Squad.” A fifth-grader who was behind in writing has surpassed her goal and continues to improve. Two students don’t indicate a complete turnaround, but they’re representative of the culture change that has taken hold at Lakewood.

With the school year wrapping up, Pinellas Superintendent Michael Grego persuaded the state Board of Education to extend Lakewood’s turnaround plan, giving the school more time to meet its goals. Testing data from throughout the school year shows students making widespread gains and gives Grego reason to be optimistic. School grades from the state have been suspended during the pandemic, but Lakewood is so confident in its progress, it has made a bold request: to get a state grade anyway. That will come this summer.

In a year that set many countless children further behind, Lakewood Elementary defied expectations and showed what’s possible with the right combination of a strong principal, an energetic staff and an environment that supports experimentation while measuring results. With Lakewood on such a promising path, Pinellas now has a model for getting more struggling schools headed in the same direction.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.