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Pinellas schools rally to boost performance

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— It had a new principal and an almost completely new staff last school year in hopes of boosting student achievement. But when it comes to reading, Melrose Elementary in South St. Petersburg ranks the lowest in all of Florida.

Melrose landed at the bottom of the recently released list of 300 Florida schools targeted for an extra hour of reading intervention each day based on students’ FCAT scores and reading gains.

Fairmount Park Elementary, another South St. Petersburg school that saw a principal and staff change last school year, earned the second-lowest scores in the state. In all, five Pinellas schools landed in the bottom 20, including Campbell Park, Lakewood and Maximo elementary schools, and 11 other Pinellas schools made the 300 lowest.

“We consider those grades to be unacceptable, and we’re owning the responsibility of that, but I have all the faith in the world we’re going to see progression,” Superintendent Michael Grego said. “It’s not magic, it’s rolling up your sleeves and doing the hard work.”

For school district officials, the schools that made the list aren’t a surprise. In each of those areas, the school district is faced with high poverty rates, as well as low parent participation and other societal factors weighing on the minds of students. About 78 percent of students at Fairmount Park qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and 83 percent of students at Melrose fall into that economic bracket.

“A few years ago, diversity was driven by court orders and we had more mixed school populations, and overall it was a better environment for all of our kids,” Pinellas school board member Peggy O’Shea said. “That doesn’t mean that there weren’t just as many kids that struggled, but I think the schools were better able to adjust and meet their individual needs because they weren’t overwhelmed by huge numbers of kids that needed that extra help. How do you overcome that challenge?”

This is the second consecutive year Fairmount Park has earned an F grade from the state, and the third year Melrose has been branded with an F. Only 11 percent of fifth-graders, 18 percent of fourth-graders and 13 percent of third-graders at Melrose passed the reading FCAT this school year. At Fairmount Park, 21 percent of fifth-graders, 7 percent of fourth-graders and 12 percent of third-graders passed the test.

The 11 other Pinellas schools on the list of 300 that must add an hour to the school day are High Point, Sandy Lane, Ponce de Leon, Lealman Avenue, Woodlawn, Pinellas Park, Bear Creek, Windsor Charter, New Heights, Seventy-Fourth Street and Blanton elementary schools.

Grego reminded school board members recently that this year schools began to transition to the much more rigorous Florida Standards, based on the nationwide Common Core standards that emphasize reading comprehension. In discussions with superintendents from other states, many expressed similar frustrations with their schools’ low reading scores, he said.

“Many of them went from 50 to 60 percent proficiency in their schools down to the high teens. These are things as we increase the rigor we’re going to have to balance,” Grego said.

In response to these poor performances, the school district is revamping the study program it uses during the extra hour of reading, and also training teachers and involving community organizations in the cause. In previous years, individual schools determined how they used the extra time. Next year, all schools will follow the Leveled Literacy Intervention curriculum, an accelerated reading program that requires students to write about what they read — a big part of expectations under the new Florida Standards. Those reading lessons will come at the beginning of the day, when students are more alert, instead of the end, as was done in years past.

In many cases, the teachers not only have to improve students’ reading bilities, but they also must help them grasp the “school words” they use in their everyday lessons — concepts like “compare and contrast” and “visualize,” said Pam Moore, associate superintendent of teaching and learning services. A program called iStation will give teachers reports on students’ progress, and work will be done on an intimate, “adaptive” scale.

“These are heavy lifts and there are a lot of contributing factors, but the main thread is poverty — and that’s not a racial term,” Moore said. “As a school district we have to look at the areas where we do have control, what resources we have in our schools and how we can rearrange ourselves to make sure that in any pocket of time we have we’re engaging our students in reading, not just the required hour. When we change our schools, our communities change, too.”

This year, reading programs won’t be limited to the classroom, Moore said. The school district will make sure all teachers are trained to work with students in small groups, and it also is providing copies of online programs used in class to local churches, libraries and community organizations such as the YMCA, where many of the students spend their time outside of school.

Many of the schools on the list have had a hard time finding adult mentors for their students and getting parents to stay involved, and all struggle with high absenteeism and late-arriving students who walk to school. The schools have a history of low teacher retention rates, yet they require the most professional development to ensure students can be brought to grade level. This year, those teachers will have an extra two days of training before the school year starts.

“Our teachers faced a huge learning curve this year, but they’ve gotten through it and a majority of teachers are coming back,” Fairmount Park Principal Nina Pollauf said. “Bad behavior has significantly declined, our families seem to be rallying around us, the community has taken a positive view of the changes and we’re moving forward with a positive energy ... . Next year we’ll have something to build on instead of something to change.”

Last year, the school district purchased laptops for each student in the low economic Title 1 funded elementary schools to take home and do homework assignments with their parents, and the district has made “a very concentrated effort” to expand that initiative this school year, Moore said.

While the main goal was to give students access to reading material, a secondary aim was to get parents to spend time with their kids. Parent workshops, which were required for the students to take their laptops home, were packed, Moore said.

An emphasis on partnerships with organizations such as the Juvenile Welfare Board also is generating more resources for before- and after-school care for students and their pre-kindergarten siblings at little or no cost to their parents. Students at many Title 1 schools are given breakfast, lunch and dinner in their cafeteria. Even at the elementary level, teachers at the struggling schools found some students were being kept home to watch siblings while their parents went to work, Moore said.

“These schools didn’t get this way overnight, and they’re not going to get out of it overnight,” Moore said. “It’s a lot to tackle and a huge heavy lift for us, but we can’t just say, ‘That’s how it is, there’s nothing we can do.’ That’s not acceptable for us. We’re staying the course.”

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