Chronically failing schools share common problems. High teacher turnover. Students living in poverty. Scarce resources. These schools also need many of the same remedies if they are going to improve. At perennially struggling schools in Pinellas and Pasco counties, district leaders have recognized that it takes committed teachers and dynamic leadership to make a real course correction. The other essentials: time, commitment and money.
Hudson Elementary in northwest Pasco has been in a decadelong slide, going from an A school in 2003 to an F the last two years. The school district brought in new leadership and new strategies every year to try to turn things around, with little to show for it. Superintendent Kurt Browning, still searching for the right formula, is making another push. Students are wearing uniforms, most of them donated. The school is hosting free weekly dinners, also paid for by a local business, enabling parents to come in and get coaching on how to help their kids with homework, in addition to a hot meal. Those measures reflect an understanding that schools like Hudson, where 83 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, cannot address academic struggles in a vacuum.
Browning brought in as principal Dawn Scilex, who led another struggling elementary school from an F to a C while improving teacher morale and strengthening community relationships. Scilex asked every teacher last year if he or she felt committed enough to stay on board. Many left, resulting in a faculty where nearly two of every three teachers are new. Just eight of the new hires have three or fewer years of experience in the classroom. It's better to have experienced teachers at the helm in high-needs classrooms, but having people who want to be there counts, too.
The Pinellas school district got a recent reminder about the importance of experienced teachers. The district was the subject of a state investigation that followed the Times' "Failure Factories" series, 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 poor and black. The Times found that more than 100 teachers with at least a decade of experience fled the five schools and were replaced by newer teachers. More than half of those teachers quit each year. The state review echoed the Times' findings, reporting that 30 to 40 percent of the teaching staff at Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose elementary schools had three years or less time in the classroom during the 2014-15 school year. At some better-off schools, the rate of inexperienced teachers was 4 to 8 percent. Research shows that teachers get better as they gain experience, and high-poverty schools are no place to learn the ropes.
Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego says the number of veteran teachers in the five elementary schools has increased, though current figures were not available. Dozens of teachers are new at those schools this fall, and the district has pledged to pay incentives to bring more experienced teachers to the struggling schools.
Turnaround efforts at Pasco's Hudson Elementary and Pinellas' five struggling schools in south St. Petersburg are still in the early stages, and progress won't come quickly. By turning to proven leaders and seasoned teachers, and by devoting resources to challenges beyond the classroom, district officials are demonstrating a greater understanding of what will help these schools succeed.