Struggling Pinellas schools preparing for new school year
CLEARWATER - Five of the lowest-performing schools in Pinellas County had the worst attendance for the first day of the school district's Summer Bridge tutoring program, but the schools' new administrators are making sure the summer is not lost. Three of the five schools have new principals this year, and all have new faculty, but efforts to turn around the schools have left little time to find ways to keep students and their parents active next school year. This summer will play a key role in getting students ready for what's expected to be an important academic year, whether its with summer camps and extra tutoring or even planning sessions with the new staff. The culture change won't be easy, school leaders say. St. Petersburg's Campbell Park Elementary and Melrose Elementary, both F schools, had the worst attendance among elementary schools on the first day of Summer Bridge, with only 147 of 275 registered students and 98 of 207 registered students attending, respectively. Azalea Middle had the worst attendance among middle schools, with only 211 of 371 registered actually attending.Maximo Elementary and Pinellas Park Middle, Pinellas' other two "turnaround" schools, also posted low attendance numbers for the program, meant to help Pinellas County's most needy students stay academically engaged over the summer. Nanette Grasso, the new principal of Melrose Elementary, said calls to missing Summer Bridge students went to disconnected phone numbers and answering machines, and her team is still figuring out which addresses are correct and which students are returning next year. "It's really a weird transition because I was preparing all the kids at my old school for what they needed to do to come back, like having all their reading logs done, and didn't officially start here until school was already out," Grasso said. The low Summer Bridge turnout shows that Melrose is in need of more excitement, Grasso said. A host of new clubs such as Kiwanis, chorus, a gardening and recycling club and an honor roll that recognizes students who manage to improve at least one letter grade will make students feel like a part of the school and, in turn, improve their grades, she said. More school functions, such as musicals and awards banquets, will also get parents involved. At Pinellas Park Middle, new principal Dave Rosenberger is focusing on setting up a PTA and has already enrolled 21 students in a summer Algebra prep course, using online refresher courses to retake class assignments and end-of-course exams needed to pass the class and go on to geometry. Azalea Middle also has students participating in the math program. "We had a couple kids that missed passing the end of course exams by one question, so if the student can improve their score by one question then they'll feel like they're on track," Rosenberger said. "Now our main focus is making sure they have a strong school to come back to, not necessarily giving them a lot of homework over vacation." Some new teachers at Fairmount Park Elementary are already getting to know their students with the help of an exclusive summer science program set up by the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. The camp took 34 rising fourth- and fifth-grade students that didn't score low enough on the FCAT to qualify for the Summer Bridge program but also weren't at the top of their class; the students are part of a free six-week program with Fairmount teachers and USF students and professors. The focus is on science but incorporates math, journaling, team-building exercises and lessons on good character traits, said camp director Fred Bennett. The kids have experienced everything from kayaking and sailing to up-close encounters with birds of prey and exotic sea life, Bennett said. The university would like to expand the "Bridge to Success" program to the other struggling schools in the near future, if it can get additional funding through school improvement grants, Bennett said. It's the first year USF has offered the camp, but the results are already apparent, he said. Fairmount Park will have a class of new leaders next year to influence their peers. "We're really trying to inspire them to go to college and build relationships with their teachers and our college students, and so far it's been really motivational," Bennett said. "It's just beautiful seeing the kids interacting with our researchers and going to all of these places for the first time, asking questions and discovering how science effects their lives." So far, the plan seems to be working. When 10-year-old honor student De'tron Gipson's counselors told him that if he didn't behave he could leave the camp where he raps about the water cycle and gets to explore ships used for research, he straightened up right away. Now he lets girls go first in line, uses manners and controls his temper, he said. He's also found that learning can be fun. "My behavior's have gotten a lot better," Gipson said. firstname.lastname@example.org (727) 215-9851 Tribune correspondent Sara Drumm contributed to this report.