When I first saw the links about failing schools in Florida popping up on Twitter, I wondered what was going on.
Then I realized they were talking about schools in Pinellas County, and then I saw the article itself in the Tampa Bay Times.
You need to read it: How the Pinellas County School Board Neglected Five Schools Until They Became the Worst In Florida.
In just eight years, Pinellas County School Board members turned five schools in the county’s black neighborhoods into some of the worst in Florida.
First they abandoned integration, leaving the schools overwhelmingly poor and black.
Then they broke promises of more money and resources.
Then — as black children started failing at outrageous rates, as overstressed teachers walked off the job, as middle class families fled en masse — the board stood by and did nothing.
This matters to me because that county is where I grew up. I survived Tarpon Springs Middle School, for God's sake. Go Spongers, represent Class of '88. My family, my friends. Their kids went to Pinellas schools. This matters to me as a resident of the Tampa Bay metro, this matters to me as a resident of Florida. This matters.
This matters to everyone because we as a community, as a state, as a nation, need to be taking better care of ALL our schools. Education is supposed to be one the great equalizers between classes and ethnics: it's supposed to be the method we break out of poverty and get ahead in life.
How the hell are we - our kids - going to improve and achieve anything when the guardians and administrators of the system rig the game, break the rules, and fail to do their jobs?
Just look at what the School Board did.
All of this is a recent phenomenon. By December 2007, when the board ended integration, black students at the schools had posted gains on standardized tests in three of the four previous years. None of the schools was ranked lower than a C. Today, all the schools have F ratings.
What the hell? Why did they end integration policies in the first place?
...But the effects of giving up on integration were immediate.It's as though the School Board basically quarantined an entire zone of schools and left them to rot.
In less than a year, schools on St. Petersburg’s north side became whiter, and the neighborhood schools to the south began drawing primarily from the city’s blighted avenues and subsidized housing complexes.
Before, the area’s most disadvantaged children, including the relatively few with serious behavior problems, were spread among a large area, mixed in with more affluent classmates and given access to several schools’ worth of teachers and counselors. Now they were all concentrated in a handful of schools.
The new system left Fairmount Park, along with the other neighborhood elementary schools, utterly transformed... The one-time A school is now the second-worst in Florida.
...Inside the school, students roam the campus at will, said Scott Ryan, a special-needs teacher who resigned in 2013 rather than work another full year at the school. “I would go in and teachers would be talking,” Ryan said, “and the kids are telling the teachers to shut up.”
It isn’t a matter of a few parents and teachers complaining. In a first-of-its-kind analysis, the Times reviewed district discipline data and found that the five schools are awash in disruptive behavior and violence.
Fairmount Park recorded at least 661 referrals for violence and disruption in 2013-14 compared to 198 in 2009-10 — a 230 percent increase.
Even after behavior problems spiked, district officials ignored calls from the teachers union for smaller class sizes and later start times.
They failed to deliver on promises to assign students extra social workers and counselors.
“Teachers were saying, 'I don’t have the resources and training that I need,’” recalled Kim Black, former president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. "It was a terrible snowball..."
Elyse Mermelstein started as a first-grade teacher at Lakewood Elementary nine weeks into the fall of 2013, but she already was the third teacher to run the class, her principal told her.
The other teachers had quit.
“The kids were horribly behind,” Mermelstein, 43, said in an interview with the Times.
A certified teacher of elementary school children and non-native English speakers, she said her Lakewood students could barely read. “They should have been reading books with paragraphs. They should have been comprehending... They had so many teachers, it added to the problem.”
Eight weeks after taking the job, she resigned, too.
There is no consistency in the teaching. There is no focus when nobody knows who is in charge, or who doing what, or how well or poor the students really are. There are no connections between teacher and student, one of the things that helps those students comprehend what they need to learn. There is nothing there for the incoming teacher(s) to seize on, creating a self-sustaining cascade of failure and quitting that will not stop until a stabilizing force interjects itself.
Keeping teachers at these five elementary schools in south St. Petersburg has been a difficult task, records show.
In 2014, 52 percent of the schools’ instructors requested transfers out.
Fourteen quit in the middle of the year. At least three of them simply walked off the job without giving notice, opting to risk action against their state teaching certificate rather than stay a moment longer.
That year, Fairmount Park alone lost three fifth-grade teachers, two first-grade teachers, two language teachers and a dropout prevention specialist. That amounted to more than 10 percent of the teachers typically on staff.
The teachers who remain at the schools are among the least experienced in the county, according to a Times analysis of state Department of Education records.
Last year, they had about 7 years of teaching experience on average. Teachers at other elementary schools in the district had about 13 years.
And the School Board is refusing to stabilize anything.
At Maximo, an instructor wrote: “How long can a teacher survive in such a broken system and how much can a human endure? Until the resources match the need, the district will continue to chew up our teachers and spit them out. We will burn out, leave the school and leave the profession.”
Any attempt to get the Pinellas School Board to enact reforms, or provide additional resources that are truly needed to these schools, has ended in stalling tactics and stonewalling.
But a Times analysis of school operating expenses shows the vote didn’t trigger a flood of new resources to the south St. Petersburg schools.
Instead, the district gave some of them less state and local tax money than other Pinellas elementary schools. Then it took federal money that was supposed to pay for extra staff and teaching time and used it to make up the difference.
That’s what happened at Maximo in 2011, according to district budget documents.
The school got about $5,600 per pupil in state and local tax dollars. On average, other elementary schools in the county got about $6,300.
The district supplemented Maximo’s budget with nearly $700,000 in Title I money and other federal funds, bringing the school’s per pupil funding to about $6,600 — $300 more than the district average.
But that still left Maximo behind more than a dozen schools in the district. And it left the school with less than half of the extra money it would have gotten if the district had given it the same local funding as most other schools.
Help would have come sooner if district leaders had followed through on promises. Instead, they announced one program after another, only to abandon each one in short order.
Turnover made things worse. Pinellas County went through four superintendents in five years.
Four months after the vote, Clayton Wilcox — the superintendent who designed the district’s plan to end integration — announced he was quitting to take a job with Scholastic Corp.
He was replaced by Julie Janssen, who launched her own programs to stop the test-score freefall at schools in south St. Petersburg.
Starting in 2008, Janssen championed a plan designed to prevent experienced teachers from leaving the schools. It would offer teachers a free master’s degree if they completed rigorous on-the-job training and stayed at their school for at least five years.
She later commissioned a study to find out why Pinellas County’s black children were trailing their peers in other counties across Florida.
Then the School Board fired her in 2011.
One of the first actions taken by John Stewart, the interim superintendent who replaced her, was to cancel the study. He also discontinued the teacher master’s program.
It's not the fault of the communities themselves, either.
When people have complained about black students’ poor grades over the years, district leaders and teachers have blamed parents, and the students themselves...
In reality, there’s nothing measurable about the county’s black population that explains why students are doing so poorly.
A Times analysis of statewide kindergarten readiness data shows that new students in Pinellas County’s most segregated schools show up no less prepared than students in scores of other struggling, high-poverty schools.
It’s only after a few years in Pinellas classrooms that they’re falling behind their peers statewide.
Ranked by social indicators that researchers use to predict how children will fare in school, Pinellas is a typical Florida county.
The median household income for black families falls squarely in the middle of all Florida counties. So do the rates of poverty, reliance on food stamps and unemployment. Children here are no more likely to live with an unmarried mother or father...
The problem becomes one of bullying: many of the anecdotes in the article are from families talking about how their children are harassed by other children with no intervention by the school's administrators to take steps to address the attacks and establish control of the classrooms. The loss of stability with teacher turnover contributes to the bullying environment. That bullying gets to harm the kids by distracting them, creating a negative psyche.
And the School Board isn't doing a damn thing about it.
Any argument about school choice goes out the window. The system of magnet schools - designed to allow select students with good grades to attend focused programs - as a means of getting good students out of bad schools falls apart because of limited space.
Lawanda Bodden has watched her son fail with a mounting sense of desperation.Families are forced to homeschool - which takes away time and money from the entire family - or spend money they don't have on private or charter schools in order to avoid the failing schools in their own neighborhoods.
Though the family lives about a block from Douglas L. Jamerson Jr. Elementary, one of the best magnet schools in the area, Cayton can’t get into the program. At least 60 children are ahead of him on the wait list.
“I felt like I’m setting up my child for failure. I have no control over what education I can give my child,” said Bodden, a 43-year-old single mother who works for a Tampa engineering firm. “Unless I made enough money to send him to a private school or stay at home and teach him, this is the only option I have.”
Good students are falling through the cracks of a broken system that the School Board refuses to fix.
Rather than re-balance the schools' budgeting to improve wages for teachers to stay on, to hire school security to help crack down on bullying, to spend on resources to make the schools more attractive as places of study and work, the School Board has done nothing.
The whole state of Florida has been letting teachers' wages drop, but somehow in Pinellas County the situation has gotten worse. Without decent pay, teachers have less incentive to stay and fight when they don't have their own system backing them up. And the School Board has allowed this ongoing cycle of resignation and despair to pile up.
This has been eight years in the making. That's almost an entire generation's worth of kids getting pushed through broken schools into middle school and high school - if they even try to stay in that long - almost five or six grades behind in key developmental skills. We're coming up to a graduation cycle where almost none of these kids are going to graduate. Entire years lost. Entire communities lost.
What the hell, Pinellas County School Board? What. The. Hell. When you swore in to office to do your duty, you swore to the whole county to no exclusion of any community. And yet you've excluded an entire city's worth of children, condemned them, and for what? Why?
None of you deserve to sit in your comfortable offices in that fancy building in Largo. None of you. Every kid should matter more than your job, and you failed those kids as surely as they are failing their standardized tests. All because you broke your promises and rigged the rules. And for what?