What to do about Pinellas County schools?

BY SKYLA LUCKEY, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — An urgent meeting concerning the failings and safety of south St. Pete students attracted hundreds of concerned community members, city and Pinellas County School Board officials to the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum.

The standing room only crowd packed in Fri., Aug. 21 for some answers following the published research of five failing schools: Campbell Park, Lakewood, Maximo, Melrose and Fairmount Park by the Tampa Bay Times.

School Board member Rene Flowers and Pinellas County School Superintendent Dr. Michael Grego led the almost two hour discussion about the reality there is no quick fix to the district’s problems.

He focused on the achievements taken place since he took office in 2012, and future plans for the school system. Community members expressed they didn’t want to hear about what the school board members plan to do for the future but what they are going to do right now to save the children of these schools.

St. Petersburg College Board of Trustee member Deveron Gibbons told Grego to “stop coming and telling me stuff that is going to make me feel good.” He said St. Petersburg College (SPC) and The Concerned Organization for Quality Education of Black Students, Inc. (COQEBS) has repeatedly come to him and asked for the district’s data to no avail. Gibbons said that 40 percent of students are coming to SPC not prepared.

“Stop telling us what you are going to do and include these folks in the plan,” said Gibbons of the concerned community members.

Grego replied that he spends 75 percent of his time trying to improve St. Petersburg schools and that he has met with the president of SPC and has worked closely with COQEBS. Flowers asked for the data so they can track where unprepared students are coming from.

This is Grego’s 36th year of working in education, and he spoke about the progress he and the Pinellas School Board have made since his arrival: Increased the one-on-one attention students get in the classroom, terminated teachers that were below the professional level and replaced them with more professional teachers, stabilized school programs and the utilization of new resources in schools.

One gentleman said he feels that this meeting was called as a mechanism for damage control. Flowers quickly said it wasn’t damage control for her.

“This is me making sure that if an individual’s questions are not answered on Facebook, Twitter, chat rooms, but that they are answered face-to-face so you don’t have to worry about driving up to Largo,” she said adding that she was there to face her community.

Former Police Chief and Deputy Mayor, Goliath Davis, said he’s thankful for The Times article because it has brought more attention to the issue recently than has been given in a long time. As a member of COQEBS, he said they have all the data that The Times based their article on and invited everyone to their meetings every first Wednesday of the month at 9:30 a.m. at the Enoch Davis Center to get the other side of the story that Grego wasn’t talking about.

“This is one side of the story. In his document and this presentation you’ve heard a lot of global and general… The devil is in the detail, and you’re not getting the whole story,” said Davis.

A primary goal of the Pinellas County School officials is to reduce the arrest rate of students, especially black males. Since Grego took office, it’s been reduced by 30 percent. He wants the students to have clean records so they can find successful employment and be accepted into college.

“We are not there yet,” he said. “I want to make that perfectly clear. We are not there yet.”

Dr. Grego explained that they aren’t anywhere near a stopping point either because his goals for the schools won’t happen overnight or in one year. How it happens is by the community and school system constantly working together for a better today and better tomorrow, and staying motivated for the children.

Flowers pleaded for support from the home. “I know we don’t have classes in how to curse, fight, steal or bully…We need some support; we need some help. If you can’t make a PTA meeting that’s fine, but if we call you because we’re having some problems, helps us to help redirect and guide that child so we can get them back on track…”

Former Gibbs High School teacher Kamara Cooper wanted to know about the teacher evaluation system and professional development. She said that “there are teachers there that want to be there, but when we had vacancies we had all kinds of people who come in and don’t know what they’re doing and we had to take them because no one else wants to come and teach our kids—there’re not prepared,” she said stating that it’s not just the five elementary schools that are suffering.

“At Gibbs we had a whole year where we had a vacancy in our math department where a substitute who had no math background was there teaching our children.”

Cooper wanted to know what the district is doing about attracting quality teachers to these failing schools. She mentioned that African-American children learn differently and that there is curriculum out there that deal with the differences. She also stated that black boys respond to black men.

Grego said training has increased for teachers, and they are specially recruiting African-American males from universities to teach in Pinellas County.

Flowers expressed that she was overwhelmed with emails and phone calls from the community expressing that they had no idea how they got to this point after reading The Times’ “Failure Factories” research article, which shared that last year there were more violent incidents at the five elementary schools than in all of the county’s 17 high schools combined.

She presented a power point presentation that educated attendees on how the five schools fell to where they currently are. It started out with the chronological desegregation decisions made by Federal Judge Lieb in the 1960s, and ended with the re-segregation in the 21st Century.

Flowers addressed that moving forward in the right direction is going to take help from many volunteers in the community by stepping up and guiding children in a productive direction and it can’t happen if the community continues to point fingers at one another.

Retired teacher Myrna Starling feels that re-segregation is a large reason for these school failures. She stated that she taught for eight or nine years after re-segregation and watched new teachers with a passion for teaching health go down and eventually quit.

“Within the first two years of this re-segregation, we should have decided to take another look at this because it was not working…It wasn’t working for me in my classroom; it was not working for the children it wasn’t working for the staff members, it was not working!”

Starling wanted to know why this has gone on for so long. “We need to reinstitute busing so our kids can be spread around and so they can begin to learn from each other.” She mentioned that we live in a global society, so our schools should not be segregated.

Principals and teachers from these five schools were also in attendance. But when Chair of the Woodson Museum, Terri Lipsey Scott, asked the parents of the failing schools to stand up, only one person stood.

For questions, comments and concerns, you can email Flowers at flowersre@pcsb.org, or go to pcsb.org and click on school board member for other members.

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