Poynter panel lets Pinellas school officials tell their own story about school turnaround
Pinellas County school district officials say they want to write their own story.
In front of dozens of local dignitaries and journalists who traveled across the country to learn about school segregation, they told one Thursday about how their most struggling schools are turning around. It starts with the right leadership, passionate teachers, warm and welcoming learning environments -- and positivity.
Six panelists were invited to speak and answer questions from the audience as part of a day-long seminar called "Separate -- And Still Unequal" hosted at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg. The focus of the panel hinged on the quality of public education and closing the achievement gap between white and minority students especially in St. Petersburg, and was inspired by the Times' Failure Factories series, which documented the decline of five once-average schools after the School Board abandoned integration efforts.
St. Petersburg College president Bill Law and St. Petersburg deputy mayor Kanika Jelks Tomalin spoke about the merits of having a strong public schools.
“Our stake is really having a school system that reflects a high quality of life that people can expect when they come to St. Petersburg,” said Tomalin, who grew up attending integrated public schools.
School Board member Rene Flowers, Melrose Elementary principal Nikita Reed and High Point Elementary principal Michael Feeney drilled down on the same talking point: the media ignores positive work done in those schools.
It's about "not allowing someone to write the story for us," Flowers said. "When students are doing wonderful things in the community, there’s no media or TV stations there.”
High Point Elementary was an F school for the 2015-16 school year, but Feeney, its principal, said his school faces different challenges than the five St. Petersburg schools highlighted in the series. High Point for example has a large population of English language learners.
“It’s not just a school. It really is a family," he said. "Every single person has a role in a child’s life. That trickles down to the student."
He commended the school district and the Pinellas Education Foundation for its support. "We’re really trying to write our own story," he said.
Like Feeney, Reed said Melrose has created a positive climate and culture that wasn't there before. Teachers focus on teaching and learning, and students are eager to talk about academics and not behavior issues.
“We focus a lot on the positive and not the negative," she said. "We have a lot of success stories."
The panel also featured Lewis Brinson, Pinellas' new minority achievement officer who spent much of his career with the Hillsborough County school district. He likened turning around a school to a "state of emergency," but said the achievement gap is just one of several gaps that must be addressed, like the income gap, health care gap and wage gap.
"Based on research, based on trends, we know there’s certain things that these turnaround schools need and we don’t need to hesitate to provide them," Brinson said. "Give them the essentials and let’s talk about the other services they need."
Then, the question inevitably came up: why not reintegrate the schools again?
"When we came back to neighborhood schools, you’re bringing all of those challenges into one community, one school," Flowers said. "So instead of having dispersed concern, you now have a concentrated concern."
"It doesn’t matter if you integrate the schools, the soft skills aren’t there," she said. "It's a level playing field."
Research shows integration benefits both black and white students. Tomalin, the deputy mayor, testified to its benefits.
"It was wonderful," she recalled. "I was very fortunate to have the benefit of a wide-reaching and vast network. ... It's something that couldn't be modeled in any other setting."