ST. PETERSBURG — Principals in five of Pinellas County’s lowest-performing schools have been under a microscope by a skeptical public and critical education officials as they attempted to reverse years of backsliding academics.
Now, they await their “final exams” from the state.
The state-led “Differentiated Accountability Team” is making its final visits of the school year to the “district managed turnaround schools” plagued by years of poor test scores and school grades.
But an early indicator of the school’s success is that a majority of the teachers plan to return.
About 5,000 teachers responded to the district’s school climate survey, which allowed them to provide anonymous feedback to their superiors. Many teachers indicated that parent involvement and student discipline will continue to be a challenge next year.
“The atmosphere here is a lot better than it has been for the last couple of years. With something in place to hold the parents accountable for the actions of their child, it could help to turn the school around,” wrote one teacher at Melrose Elementary in St. Petersburg. “Parents need to have some consequences for the actions of their children.”
“I think it is important for the district and state to understand that this school has potential, but it will take time,” wrote a teacher at Maximo Elementary in St. Petersburg. “There are many staff members here that put loads of their life’s time into this place. I would not be fair to dissolve the school or the staff without the school or district stepping up to design a program to keep staff members here.”
Melrose, an F school, had the largest staff change, with 13 returning instructional staff members and 29 new faces. At Maximo, a D school, there were 18 new hires, and there were 22 at D school Azalea Middle, 25 at F school Fairmount Park and 24 at D school Pinellas Park Middle.
At Azalea, 94 percent of teachers said they feel the staff is “committed to raising academic expectations for all students in this school,” but only 30 percent felt students had high expectations of themselves.
“There were a number of areas where our scores were higher than any other middle school in the district, and then there were areas where we were significantly below, so there’s a big gulf to make up with our teachers’ answers,” Azalea Principal Connie Kolosey said. “They said they feel like they have a lot of support here, they have the resources they need, but concerns are still parental engagement, safety, consistency with discipline and those things that are constant struggles. It was empowering to know throughout the school year that even as things got tough we all chose to be here.”
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New programs have done a lot to get students engaged, and also to create opportunities for parents to see what their child is learning at school. Azalea was the first in the school district to create a “Cadet Corps” mentorship program that emphasize military-style leadership with the JROTC at Boca Ciega High School.
The Cadet Corps is doubling its enrollment next year, with about 70 students expected to join, and a new magnet Gateway to Technology Pre-Engineering program already has improved students’ science skills through hands-on projects like robot building.
Azalea has had a fairly strong Parent Teacher Association for several years, but when Principal Dave Rosenberger came to Pinellas Park Middle School at the beginning of the year the school PTA was nonexistent. Only 19 percent of teachers reported they thought “parent support for this school is strong,” and only 48 percent said parents value their students’ academic achievement.
Rosenberger, parents from his former school, Clearwater Fundamental Middle School, and a handful of dedicated parents at Pinellas Park worked to get their PTA up and running this year, he said. With the installment of a new Cambridge academic program next year, and the foundation set to start raising the bar for students in August, parent involvement is going to be paramount, he said.
“I found myself disappointed sometimes, feeling impatient and wanting some of our changes to take place faster, but when you go from a nonexistent PTA (to one) that has about 150 members, it may not be 600 or 700, but it’s still a significant improvement,” Rosenberger said. “I’ve also seen parents walking around campus more and more, so we need to continue making them feel more welcome.”
At Fairmount Park Elementary in St. Petersburg, only 9 percent of teachers said they felt parents supported the school, and only 22 percent said students were motivated to learn. Fairmount Park teachers didn’t paint as rosy a picture of the turnaround as their peers, with only 49 percent saying they felt supported in their job and 64 percent saying they’re satisfied with their jobs.
“We’re really focusing on core instruction, monitoring and professional development of our teachers, because the stronger the teacher is the stronger our students will become,” Fairmount Park Principal Nina Pollauf said. “It’s been a large learning curve this year, and there’s a lot of learning to be done, but they’ve come through, a majority of my teachers are coming back and I think next year we’ll have something to build on instead of past years full of changes.”
Changes won’t happen overnight, but they’re slowly changing the schools’ culture, Pollauf said. Fairmount Park only had two students identified as gifted in the previous school year, and this year nine were identified, with 12 more waiting for screening. The year as a whole has been “tremendously successful” for the schools, but keeping the momentum going next year will be the hardest, Rosenberger said.
“It’s like a relationship where at first you’re completely enamored and attracted to them and you only see the good qualities. Then, as time goes by and your enthusiasm dies down, they may seem less attractive and some of their traits that drive you crazy start to surface at the top,” Rosenberger said. “I think there was a lot of excitement with the change last year but do I think we’re done? Absolutely not. We’ve got the kids attending class, now we have to engage them and step up in the classroom.”