CLEARWATER — While five struggling schools in Pinellas County have made significant improvements during the year, recent reports from the state Department of Education indicate student behavior and achievement, particularly in reading, are not yet up to par.
The five schools — Maximo Elementary, Melrose Elementary, Fairmount Park Elementary and Azalea Middle, all in St. Petersburg, and Pinellas Park Middle — were dubbed “turnaround schools” by the state last school year after students repeatedly performed poorly on standardized tests and the schools earned multiple D and F grades. School district officials had to submit plans detailing how they would change the culture at the schools, many teachers and staff were replaced, and classrooms are being audited by the state throughout the year.
At Maximo, the state’s Differentiated Accountability Team wrote that in many classrooms there aren’t clear expectations for acceptable behavior and procedures, resulting in disruptive students who limit the teacher’s ability to carry out lessons. Melrose was cited for low FCAT scores and expectations for students, of whom only 19 percent are considered proficient in reading, 13 percent in math and 41 percent in writing on the standardized test.
Students’ reading performance and fourth graders’ FCAT scores were of particular concern at Fairmount Park. Only 16 percent scored at a proficient level or higher on the FCAT reading exam, 31 percent on writing tests and 8 percent on the math test. Only 4 percent of fourth-grade students met proficiency standards on the school district’s expository writing assessments, and none are proficient in narrative writing, the report states.
Those issues could be due, in part, to the many new teachers at the schools this year, as well as the implementation of Common Core standards, new statewide standards that will be more rigorous overall and emphasize writing.
Melrose had the largest staff change, with 13 returning instructional staff members and 29 new faces. At Maximo there are 18 new hires, and there are 22 at Azalea Middle, 25 at Fairmount Park and 24 at Pinellas Park Middle.
“We’re a lot better, but we’re not all better,” said Azalea Principal Connie Kolosey. “Last year our sixth-grade students started getting Common Core instruction, and that group is already seeing huge gains, especially on the FCAT because what they’re learning in school is much harder than the FCAT. Overall, the dip in grades could be because our kids are doing harder work.”
Azalea was commended for students’ good behavior, which can be largely attributed to new extracurricular activities started this school year, such as the school district’s only “Cadet Corps” mentors program with the JROTC at Boca Ciega High School. The program not only promotes community involvement and civics, but also military-style leadership and has been very popular with students, Kolosey said.
“Some of the kids in the program were really great kids and leaders to begin with, and then there were some kids that were kind of borderline in their commitment to school and their behavior that have really tightened up because of their involvement with Cadet Corps,” she said. “It’s really neat to see them all take that so seriously.”
Pinellas Park Middle has seen an increase in attendance, with percentages in the 90s across grade levels, but the report noted that the number of students receiving referrals or other disciplinary action also has increased to about 20 percent. However, the increase in student citations is also a sign that the staff is holding them responsible, new principal Dave Rosenberger said.
“Kids will be the first to point out if they’re not being held to the same standards as one of their classmates, so promoting good behavior has been huge this year,” Rosenberger said. “We’ve really focused on showing that the rules are the rules and no one is going to slide by, and that may mean more kids in detention... I’ve talked with folks that say the campus is calmer and there’s more time spent actually teaching in class, because kids are learning that if they avoid conflict they avoid discipline.”
All schools were commended for the professional development the teachers went through, as well as visible efforts to create a “more positive school climate and culture.” Many schools were said to be noticeably cleaner from previous years, and students are being expected and encouraged to journal in most classrooms. And as the school district develops more academic programs for the schools, improvement is sure to follow, Superintendent Michael Grego said. Already, Azalea’s new engineering academy has received more than 100 applications for next school year, and Pinellas Park’s Pre-Advanced International Certificate of Education program has garnered more than 80 applications.
“Many of the families applying to these programs are making them their first choice, which is a real clear indicator that they believe in the success of these schools,” Grego said.