Federal grant would aid struggling Pinellas elementary schools
CLEARWATER - Students at Woodlawn Elementary School in St. Petersburg have long struggled to keep up with other Pinellas County schools, but a new grant could help turn things around. This week, the Pinellas County school district learned it’s a finalist for a half-million dollar School Turnaround AmeriCorps 2013 grant, and district administrators will be resubmitting a new application Friday. The money, spread out over three years, would put more tutors and other staff members in the county’s three lowest-performing elementary schools: Woodlawn, Lakewood and Fairmount Park, all in St. Petersburg. Providing more tutors also means helping students find good role models – something the schools need, said Woodlawn Principal Karen Russell.“We have a high-poverty school, and a lot of kids need an adult that they can make a connection with that can give them a pat on the back for doing well and just show that they care,” Russell said. “They make the same gains as children that aren’t in poverty, but when they start out behind they stay behind.” Pinellas County is one of seven school districts in Florida in the final stage of consideration for the grant, said Cat Keen, director of national service programs for Volunteer Florida, the state-run chapter of the federal service organization, AmeriCorps. Before they are voted on by members of the Corporation for National and Community Service, though, the school districts have to submit new applications detailing how their plans meet school district needs and incorporate AmeriCorps volunteers, who dedicate a year to service projects in exchange for college scholarships. “There’s only $5 million available nationally, so it’s been very competitive,” Keen said. If Pinellas County Schools gets the $501,467 grant for which it has applied, it will match it with $611,781 of its own money, said school district spokeswoman Melanie Marquez-Parra. The added staffing would offset the growing number of teacher vacancies in the low-performing schools. About 75 student volunteers from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg would also be trained and placed in the schools to tutor students. Another 22 volunteers, including one parent engagement coordinator at each school, also would work with the program. All would become AmeriCorps members. The school district will know by mid-July if it is getting the grant, which is being offered for the first time this year. If the application is approved, money would start coming in August and run through July 2016. At Fairmount Parks, a D school, 98 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches; and at Lakewood, a C school, 94 percent of students take advantage of the program. For Woodlawn, a D school where 92 percent of the 460 students get free or reduced-price lunches, having more helping hands really could make all the difference, Russell said. “Really, any help we can get through grants means more children that will be caught up,” Russell said. “If we can get them on grade level by third grade, they won’t have any problem graduating high school.”
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