ST. PETERSBURG — It has faced a few rough years, but the only tears falling at Melrose Elementary School’s campus Monday morning seemed to be coming from the parents.
About 150,000 public school students headed back to class for the 2014-15 school year, with crossing guards at nearly 200 sites and school district personnel and first responders lending a hand for “the smoothest first day of school,” Superintendent Michael Grego said he had ever witnessed. The school district didn’t receive any calls from schools or buses reporting issues, Grego said.
Fourteen new principals across the county met their new students and two new technology magnet elementary schools — Kings Highway in Clearwater and Gulf Beaches in St. Pete Beach — opened their doors for the first time since they were closed in 2008. Students are also spread among four new middle school magnet programs, a new magnet school for middle school boys in danger of dropping out, and a charter high school taken over by the school district after years of low graduation rates, called Pinellas Gulf Coast Academy.
But for 5-year-old kindergartener Promise Wheeler, Melrose was her introduction to the world of education.
“This is my baby’s first day of school; I can’t believe it,” said Wheeler’s grandmother Cal Jackson as she photographed her granddaughter proudly posing at the Melrose sign with her purple backpack. “I feel like she’s going to get a real great start here, a good beginning.”
The staff at Melrose, 1752 13th Ave. S., is hoping for a good beginning, too.
Last school year, Melrose ranked the worst in reading gains and reading standardized test scores of any school in Florida, and Fairmount Park Elementary was second worst.
Fifteen other Pinellas schools made the state Department of Education’s list of the lowest 300 in the state and will be required to add an extra hour of reading intervention onto their school day.
This is the second year Melrose has been deemed a “turnaround school” because of low test scores and school grades. In 2013, the school got a new principal and faculty, but with a historically struggling population and low parental involvement, the school earned its third “F” grade. Only 11 percent of fifth-graders, 18 percent of fourth-graders and 13 percent of third-graders at Melrose passed the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test reading last school year.
“Last year was so much trying to get through to our families, build relationships, and build the trust because they’ve been through several administrators in the past 10 years,” Principal Nanette Grasso said, as she hugged returning students, directed parents and took suggestions from passers-by on everything from traffic flows to student assignment policies. “It starts with just being involved with the community and then you start working together to help our kids.”
This is a year of change throughout the school district, Grego said.
All staff members at schools targeted for an extra hour, even 10-year physical education teacher Earl Perrin, had extensive training this summer in their own subject areas, and on how to work with students on reading.
Each staff member will work with small groups of students on reading skills for the first hour of the day, and the staff is subject to pop-in visits from state officials to monitor progress.
Perrin, the longest-tenured teacher at Melrose, said last year was by far his best there. It all comes down to having a positive attitude, and that “starts from the top,” Perrin said.
“The new administration is outstanding; they changed the whole school atmosphere from my first day here, by far,” Perrin said.
That positive attitude will trickle down to the students, which is what was needed at the journalism magnet school, technology specialist Adam Graves said. This year, students will have new desktop computers in classrooms to practice typing skills and new iPad labs for more interactive lessons.
Students across the school district also will take a new, online standardized test aligned to the new Florida Standards already being taught in classrooms, which could mean a jump in scores. The FCAT was based on older education standards that didn’t necessarily line up with the current standards, which emphasize writing in all subjects and critical thinking skills.
Students in Title 1 schools still will be allowed to check out laptop computers to take home for help with school assignments. Along with teaching students to complete assignments on the laptop, the schools held required classes to teach parents to use the computer with their children, which should foster more family interaction.
“We’ve already seen so much more parental involvement here, and we have a lot of new teachers coming in with lots of experience and good attitudes,” Graves said. “That’s really what we need here, is support.”
Parent involvement is one of the biggest challenges the school faces, but there are other plans to spur involvement, Grasso said. This year, each grade level at Melrose will perform class musicals for the school’s PTA meetings. Each class will spotlight a student of the month, who will be recognized at that month’s PTA meeting.
“We figure that’s about 26 families right there that are bound to show up,” Grasso said.
Tameika Ellington, whose 8-year-old and two 6-year-olds have attended Melrose, said she noticed higher expectations for parents during the middle of last year.
“I’ve noticed a lot of changes. They’re sending a lot more homework home and newsletters and stuff that the parents have to sign off on or be involved with,” Ellington said. “It’s a good change, though. They’re getting pretty hands-on here, so I like the new staff.”
The students also will get a new science lab and music room this school year, but for now those classes will be housed in portable classrooms because the school’s growing enrollment has it “bursting at the brim,” Grasso said.
Adding new programs to the schools, like the science labs and the Gateway to Technology and Engineering program at Azalea Middle School, already has proved to be a draw for students and teachers alike, Grego said.
“Two years ago we had students trying to leave that school and now we have record enrollment at Azalea Middle and people are still enrolling,” Grego said. “I see tremendous motivation at these schools, a tremendous decrease in turnover with our staff, and that’s so critical so our students can build relationships at their school. Now that those schools are stabilized, we’re focusing on good instruction and I’m confident we’ll see those schools move.”