To improve student achievement, Pinellas School Board must show leadership

Published Feb. 19, 2012

The harsh reality is that Pinellas County public schools have slipped during the past decade. Compared with other large districts in Florida, FCAT scores in Pinellas have failed to improve at the same clip. There is a great deal of speculation why, but the key point is what to do now. And the answer is clear: Focus on leadership.

Leaders, from the School Board to the superintendent to the principal at every school, must focus on a clearer mission to help teachers and parents get students reading and doing math at grade level from second grade on. As superintendent John Stewart emphasizes, if the district does that, everything else will take care of itself, including FCAT scores and school grades. A recent analysis by the Tampa Bay Times pointed out the troubling trends over a decade of FCAT data, and community leaders speculated on the reasons. But the key to improvement is a more united, universally embraced approach for the future.

Before Stewart took over last year, the past decade saw three different superintendents with different management styles and frequent controversies that diverted attention from student performance. Stewart has so far brought a sensible, steady hand to the job and has an eye for building coalitions and solutions that lead to success in the classroom. He believes that leadership at the school level is key. As a generation of principals nears retirement, the district must be able to select, groom and retain those who will follow. It must support those who can succeed, and it must not shrink from replacing those who don't.

But it is the elected School Board that must sharpen the focus and be held publicly accountable. It must be willing to look outside of the district for success. For example, Palm Beach is succeeding with career and technical programs — preparing students for work after graduation — and FCAT scores have improved. Find out what works and use it.

It is also important to look deeper than school-by-school data and analyze the performance of subgroups. A school's performance may look fine on the surface, but there may be groups — ethnic, economic or other — within the school who are struggling. Stewart wants to partner with St. Petersburg College and the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and USF to build a coalition centered on students. It is wise to draw on all of the available resources to tackle a problem that has festered too long.

The Pinellas public schools have endured a lot of change in recent years, from students' school assignments to leadership issues to declining tax revenue that has challenged every school district in Florida. Yet other large districts have been more successful in improving student performance. The problems have been identified, and the district administration and community are no longer in denial. Stewart has restored stability and confidence in the administration, and he offers a commonsense approach on student performance. But he will be in Pinellas just one more school year after this one, and it is the School Board that should be held accountable for reversing these long-term student achievement trends.