Editorial: Improving struggling schools

Melrose Elementary, at 1752 13th Ave. S, St. Petersburg, is one of Pinellas County’s low-performing schools.
Melrose Elementary, at 1752 13th Ave. S, St. Petersburg, is one of Pinellas County’s low-performing schools.
Published Aug. 17, 2014

Nowhere today in Pinellas County is the promise of a new school year more urgent than in a handful of south St. Petersburg schools where students have consistently struggled to learn to read. Pinellas superintendent Michael Grego has high hopes that this could be the year that trend lines reverse at the five elementary schools and has a host of strategies, some still in draft stages, for bolder intervention in coming months. But the school district will need the broad and sustained support of the community to turn this tide.

This summer came the sobering news that two of St. Petersburg's elementary schools, Melrose and Fairmount Park, were the worst in the state in student reading performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Three other Pinellas elementary schools, Maximo, Lakewood and Campbell Park, made the state's list of the 25 worst-performing on reading. The disappointing news came despite several bold initiatives implemented in the past two years — from after school "Promise Time" and "Summer Bridge" programs geared to struggling students to radical turnaround plans at some schools that included installing new principals and their hand-picked staff. The five schools are also among 16 Pinellas schools that will add an extra hour of reading instruction this year under a legislative requirement that applies to the state's 307 worst-performing elementary schools in reading.

Grego told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board last week he is convinced the district is on the right path. He noted that the district's efforts to attract and retain staff using incentive pay and signing bonuses appears to be stabilizing faculty at low-performing schools, a key step toward building cohesion and improving relationships with students' families and the neighborhood. He said when Campbell Park Elementary opens its doors this morning, for example, he expects just four new teachers to be on staff.

Next, Grego said, he hopes to replicate an experiment throughout the five schools that for the past five years has shown some success in helping some Fairmount Park students perform better academically. Based on the Harlem Children's Zone Project, the district partnered with the Pinellas Juvenile Welfare Board and R'Club to surround families with assistance they might need to provide stability for the child, from after-school care to social workers. The result was positive in FCAT scores from 2012-13. Far fewer children enrolled in the program scored Level 1 on math or reading on the FCAT compared with their peers, and a handful scored much higher at Level 4 or 5. That's not as much progress as is needed, but it's progress.

Expanding the program won't be cheap, and Grego said the district is still in the planning stages of identifying exactly what it will need from community partners. But if St. Petersburg wants to grow a quality workforce, not to mention an informed citizenry, it cannot let the status quo in these public schools stand. Raising student performance is essential for the city's future health and for the futures of these young students.