CLEARWATER — Five struggling schools in Pinellas County began this school year with a promise that change was on the way — through new programs, new policies and new personnel.
But principals at the schools say that change won’t happen overnight. At most of the schools, which faced state-mandated intervention due to years of D and F school grades, most teachers and staff members have been rehired and programs such as after-school clubs and Parent Teacher Associations still are getting off the ground.
When it comes to the attitudes of staffs and students, however, there is a clear difference, said Maximo Elementary Principal Randi Latzke.
“With such a high level of positive energy being put toward a common mission, I don’t think there’s a single teacher that’s not totally committed toward moving their kids and their school forward,” Latzke said. “You can just feel the difference this year, and to be honest I don’t think the public at large realizes the great things we have going on and how much work it took.”
At the end of last school year, all instructional staff and principals at the five schools had to reapply for their jobs. But many of the schools’ rosters have few new names. Three of the five schools have new principals this year: Nanette Grasso at Melrose Elementary, Dave Rosenberger at Pinellas Park Middle and Nina Pollauf at Fairmount Park Elementary. Connie Kolosey at Azalea Middle and Latzke at Maximo Elementary retained their positions, along with many teachers at the schools. At Azalea Middle, 57 instructional staff members returned to their positions, with 22 new hires for the 2013-14 school year. At Fairmount Park Elementary, 36 staff members returned and 25 are new. At Maximo, 35 returned and 18 are new, and at Pinellas Park Middle, 40 returned and 24 are new.
Melrose Elementary had the biggest staff change, with 13 returning instructional staff members and 29 new faces, many of whom followed Grasso from A-rated Orange Grove Elementary in Seminole. Bringing in new teachers was key to changing the culture at the school, Grasso said.
“There is so much ability in this staff, and they’re really digging into the school, looking at how we can expand its clubs and journalism program with fresh eyes, and finding new ways to get students engaged,” Grasso said. “Having a whole new staff come together increases the excitement level in the school ... but our biggest challenge is still meeting a whole new set of parents and families and building the trust within the community.”
On the other hand, hiring teachers who already know parents, students and processes ensures efforts that began years ago at Maximo are fully realized, Latzke said. The focus can remain on improvement “instead of trying to get things up and running from scratch.”
Those who were retained had teacher evaluations of “effective” or “highly effective.” Most important, the teachers wanted to stay at the school, Latzke said.
All of the teachers at the schools, which have battled high transfer rates for years, underwent professional development training this summer to prepare for the year ahead and to ensure the curriculum was strengthened at each school.
The training might be invaluable, as state education officials will observe closely each turnaround school to make sure teachers, curricula and plans for improvement are up to snuff. Those officials began walk-throughs at the troubled schools this month, and even though there are still challenges to overcome, Kolosey said, the state team verified her staff is on the right track.
“The most encouraging thing was the state did focus groups with our students and asked if they had a problem, was there one teacher that they know they could turn to, and all of the students answered, ‘Yes,’ ” Kolosey said. “That’s very different from the answers they gave last year.”
The schools are among those with the highest poverty rates in the county; Melrose Elementary tops the list with 97 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. Few of the schools had a functioning PTA, and all had high teacher turnover rates last year despite $1,000 recruitment bonuses and other incentives for high test scores.
This academic year, the school district offered $3,000 bonuses to help recruit high-quality teachers to the schools — with a chance to earn more for good performance — and principals received a $5,000 bonus.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Pinellas County School Board members are set to approve recommendations that one Melrose Elementary teacher resign and another retires; one Pinellas Park Middle teacher resign as another goes on maternity leave; and one Maximo Elementary teacher transfer.
New clubs, tutoring efforts and family involvement programs are rolling out at each of the schools. Principals said their biggest challenge is convincing parents such as Max Power, whose daughter attends Pinellas Park Middle, that teachers are capable of changing the culture of the school, even if they have been there for years.
“I’m thinking about home schooling because with all of the work I’ve put in raising my children to be intelligent and responsible, I don’t want them in an environment where they can be influenced to go back the other way,” Power said. “I don’t want my daughter to be overlooked or looked down on because of the school I put her in, a school known for fighting and bad grades. They seem like they want to change, but now we just have to wait around to see if that happens.”