Cara Fitzpatrick, Tampa Bay Times, August 17, 2015
Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego has announced a plan to convert three of five failing elementary schools in St. Petersburg’s black neighborhoods into magnet programs, even as city and county leaders reacted to a Tampa Bay Times investigation that found years of neglect turned the schools into some of the worst in Florida.
The proposal could mean additional resources and even facility upgrades for the schools. If successful, the magnet programs could create racial balance at schools that last year were as much as 86 percent black.
The Times investigation, “Failure Factories,” has drawn national attention and prompted an outcry in Pinellas since it published last week.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said the community should be “truly outraged.” She said that she plans to ask the U.S. Department of Education to review how the school district spends federal dollars meant to help poor children.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said that he was “deeply troubled” by details revealed in the story. He added a new director of education and community engagement to the budget being voted on next month. He said Monday that the city position will “give priority to those five schools.”
The Times investigation detailed how the district abandoned integration efforts in 2007, then failed to follow through with promised new resources for schools that became mostly black and poor.
Today, the county’s most segregated schools–Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose–are failing at rates far worse than almost any other schools in the state.
Grego said Monday that district officials have been working for at least a year on plans to turn three of the five schools into magnet programs. He said he kept details about the proposal quiet because he plans to apply early next year for a competitive federal grant. The district will create the magnet programs even if it does not win grant money, Grego said.
The district has not yet sorted out most of the details for the programs, which Grego said could take three years to launch. Grego talked to the School Board about the plans during last week’s work session.
Lakewood would start an International Baccalaureate program, while Fairmount Park would focus on STEAM, or Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math. Maximo would start an entrepreneurship and leadership program.
Campbell Park would remain a neighborhood school. Melrose already is a magnet school, but its journalism program has failed to attract families outside the neighborhood. Grego said that program needs to be reviewed and possibly changed.
Lakewood, Maximo and Campbell Park had magnet programs in the past that weren’t successful. They, too, were supported by a federal grant. The programs drew students from southern Pinellas, not the entire county.
Grego said the district was studying those efforts to learn what didn’t work, and that the proposed magnets would be patterned after successful countywide magnets, such as Douglas L. Jamerson Elementary and Sanderlin PK-8 IB World School. Both A-rated schools are located in black neighborhoods, but have diverse student populations.
School Board member Carol Cook said she supports the plan for new magnet programs.
“Do I believe that just because a white student is sitting next to an African American student, it is going to make a difference? No. But if we’re putting in something high-rigor, something where they can take ownership over their education as well as teachers delivering rigorous instruction, yes, I think that will make a difference,” she said.
The Times investigation, a year-long effort by a team of reporters, found that the five elementary schools in St. Petersburg’s black neighborhoods were performing close to the state average on state exams when the School Board voted to end integration in 2007.
In 2014, 95 percent of black students tested at the schools failed reading or math, making the black neighborhoods in southern Pinellas County the most concentrated site of academic failure in all of Florida.
All five schools are located within six square miles.