Who’s My Teacher Today?

Cara Fitzpatrick, Tampa Bay Times, October 17, 2015

James Sampson had so many teachers at Melrose Elementary that the 9-year-old couldn’t keep them all straight.

He started the year with Ms. Davis, but by the fourth day of school he had Mr. Ware. Then came Ms. Flynt, Ms. Schick, Mr. Graveley and Ms. Smith. In all, James had a dozen different fill-ins between August 2014 and June 2015. More than a quarter of his school year was taught by substitutes.

It used to be that Melrose had no trouble keeping good teachers in the classroom.

But when Pinellas County School Board members ended integration efforts in 2007, they touched off a mass exodus of veteran teachers from five schools that became almost entirely poor and black.

Rather than take action to stabilize the teacher ranks at Melrose, Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood and Maximo elementary schools, board members and district leaders ignored the problem for years–even as the schools devolved into five of the worst in Florida.

They offered few incentives to keep seasoned teachers at the schools.

They replaced the ones who fled with recent graduates who had never taught before. They forced them to take on some of the county’s most challenging students with no extra training or support.

Then they watched, year after year, as those new teachers drowned in the pressures of the job. Some suffered emotional breakdowns. Others skipped work to avoid the stress. Most left the schools the first chance they got.

Today, a Tampa Bay Times investigation has found, black children in the county’s most segregated schools get worse teachers than children anywhere else in the county.

Using state and district personnel records, Times reporters compared teachers hired by the five resegregated schools with those hired at schools in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods.

They found teachers in the whiter schools are more experienced, more likely to stay in their jobs and more likely to have clean employment records.

Teachers in the mostly black schools are less experienced, more likely to quit and more likely to have been flagged for incompetence or misconduct.

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Recent actions by superintendent Mike Grego show how the district might have addressed the problem. In just two years, Grego cut turnover nearly in half. All it took, he said, was making it a top priority. He started by putting experienced principals in charge and keeping them there to build up a loyal staff. Then he added classroom aides and steered the schools more counselors and social workers.

In an interview with the Times in May, Grego recalled the situation he inherited when he started. “We had almost all new people at these schools. I was like pulling my hair out, saying, ‘You can’t do this!’ ” he said. “Every inch and pound of research will tell you to place experienced and well-trained teachers” at struggling schools.

Since then, Grego said, the district has “turned the corner.”

In the past, more than half the teachers at the schools quit every year, he said.

Now that number is down to one in three.

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For decades, the school district bused children around Pinellas County to keep schools racially integrated. As recently as 2006, no school was more than 48 percent black.

That ended the following year, when School Board members voted to halt integration efforts and return to neighborhood schools.

Ten elementary schools, all in St. Petersburg, were affected most. Five on the city’s north side–Blanton, John M. Sexton, Northwest, Sawgrass Lake and Shore Acres–became much whiter.

The five neighborhood schools on the city’s south side became almost entirely black.

On the day of the School Board decision, Dec. 18, 2007, teachers in the southside schools were roughly as experienced as teachers in the northside schools.

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