Failure Factories: Five elementary schools in Pinellas County, Florida

Cara Fitzpatrick, Lisa Gartner and Michael LaForgia, Failure Factories. Tampa Bay Times, 14 August 2015. Five-part series. “How the Pinellas County School Board neglected five schools until they became the worst in Florida. First they abandoned integration. Then they failed to send help. Now, five once-decent schools in St. Petersburg are among the very worst in the state.”

Winner of the 2015 IRE [Investigative Reporters & Editors] Medal for Investigative Journalism. “Judges’ comments: With its deep reporting, clear writing and detailed data analysis, the Tampa Bay Times shamed and embarrassed Pinellas County school leaders for completely failing black children in the district. This story is the epitome of why desegregation was ordered in 1954 – to level the educational playing field for black children. In a few short years after the Pinellas district abandoned integration, its schools again became havens for the haves and have nots. One expert said what school leaders did was nothing short of ‘educational malpractice.’ Unqualified teachers churned through the schools, leaving in their wake students who couldn’t read or write. The schools became dangerous battlegrounds for bullies and sexually-aggressive children. One young girl, so traumatized by daily life at a place that is supposed to be safe, lay down in the road, hoping to be run over by a car. Reforms are now underway because of the impressive commitment by the newspaper to right an alarming wrong.”

Winner of the 2015 George Polk Award for Education Reporting. “… a deeply researched series that traced the decline of black student achievement in Pinellas County to a 2007 school board rezoning decision that effectively re-segregated five schools. After spending 18 months analyzing data on black student performance and behavior, interviewing hundreds of students and teachers from the affected schools and gathering documents from the 20 largest school systems in Florida, Times reporters demonstrated that black students had the least qualified teachers, attended school on the most violent campuses and were far more likely to be suspended for minor infractions. After the series ran U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan flew to St. Petersburg to meet with black families, accusing the district of ‘education malpractice.’ ”

Winner of the 2015 Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism.

Part One, 14 August 2015: 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.

Today thousands of children are paying the price, a Tampa Bay Times investigation has found….

Times reporters spent a year reviewing tens of thousands of pages of district documents, analyzing millions of computer records and interviewing parents of more than 100 current and former students. Then they crisscrossed the state to see how other school districts compared.

Among the findings:

Ninety-five percent of black students tested at the schools are failing reading or math, making the black neighborhoods in southern Pinellas County the most concentrated site of academic failure in all of Florida.

Teacher turnover is a chronic problem, leaving some children to cycle through a dozen instructors in a single year. In 2014, more than half of the teachers in these schools asked for a transfer out. At least three walked off the job without notice.

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.

After reshaping the schools, the district funded four of them erratically. Some years they got less money per student than other schools, including those in more affluent parts of the county. In 2009, the year after resegregation, at least 50 elementary schools got more money per student than Campbell Park.

Other districts with higher passing rates are doing far more to aid black students, including creating special offices to target minority achievement, tracking black students’ progress in real time and offering big bonuses to attract quality teachers to high-minority schools. Pinellas does none of those things….

Pinellas County’s black students haven’t been struggling in secret. School Board members have heard repeatedly from parents and teachers at south St. Petersburg schools who begged for relief. State education officials have stepped in to monitor four of the five schools because of their low test scores.

Yet, when contacted by the Times, board members distorted facts, pleaded ignorance or said they needed more information before they could act….

Among Florida’s most populous counties, Pinellas is the least diverse.

Blacks make up only about 10 percent of the population. A majority live in a roughly 12-square-mile area south of Central Avenue in St. Petersburg.

They didn’t get there by accident.

Beginning in the 1930s, city leaders drew up plans for a “colored zone” on the city’s south side and made it impossible, through permitting and housing discrimination, for blacks to live or own businesses outside its borders. Blacks who tried to move out of the zone were met with death threats.

In the 1970s, city and county leaders routed Interstate 275 through the heart of St. Petersburg’s black community. Whole blocks were razed and thousands of families were resettled farther south of Central Avenue, where the county’s most segregated schools stand today….

On Dec. 18, 2007, the School Board met to consider a new plan.

It called for a “neighborhood schools” system that kept students close to home.

It was de-facto segregation.

Children in white neighborhoods would go to mostly white schools. Children in black neighborhoods would go to schools that were almost entirely black.

Fifty years of research has shown that such decisions set districts back, said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA and a leading expert on school segregation.

“It produces schools that teachers don’t want to teach in and that are branded as failures by our state and national governments,” Orfield said. “When you go to neighborhood schools, whites and Asians get schools that function well and blacks and Latinos get schools that are impoverished and fail.

“This isn’t a secret.”

Giving up on racially balanced schools wasn’t the School Board’s only option.

They could have integrated schools by requiring a balance of children based on socio-economic status, as other counties were doing.

They could have carefully constructed magnet schools and special programs to attract more white children to schools in black neighborhoods….

Part Two, 21 August 2015: Failure Factories: Lessons in fear. Violence is part of daily life in Pinellas County’s most segregated elementary schools.

In Pinellas County’s most segregated elementary schools, violence has become a part of daily life….

A Tampa Bay Times investigation has found that incidents of violence and disruption have soared as district leaders neglected programs meant to make the schools safer….

Times reporters spent a year taking an unprecedented look at safety in the five schools, reviewing hundreds of thousands of discipline records and police reports, and found:

Last year, there were more violent incidents at the five elementary schools than in all of the county’s 17 high schools combined.

For years, district leaders gave the schools the same number of employees to handle eight times the amount of violence faced at other elementary schools. Teachers at the schools describe calling for help in their classrooms only to be ignored because no one was there to respond.

Teachers are overwhelmed. Many said they had little training and no idea how to get students under control. More than half the teachers at the schools requested transfers in 2014. Several have been taken away in ambulances after suffering panic attacks or being injured by their students.

Until recently, district officials under-reported serious incidents to a state clearinghouse that tracks dangers in the classroom–an apparent violation of state law that made the schools seem safer than they really were.

Violence went on a steep rise a year after the School Board abandoned integration in 2007….

Teachers and administrators at the five schools wrote up students about 21,000 times in the past five years. More than 40 percent of the referrals were categorized by the district as violent incidents. Most of those were for students caught striking other students.

It is impossible to tell from school district records how violent the attacks were. Students and teachers say most incidents amount to minor scuffles, not bloody confrontations.

But in dozens of cases uncovered by the Times, students threatened to kill one another, committed sex assaults, drew blood, broke bones or sent one another to the hospital….

[A] mounting body of evidence shows that a daily drumbeat of bullying creates high levels of stress, which can affect a student’s health and ability to concentrate, said Dr. Matthew Biel, director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Georgetown University….

Until 2012, board members and district administrators left the schools with the same basic resources as they had before, even as discipline problems increased.

Many school districts across the nation have taken aggressive steps to curb disruptive behavior, including hiring security experts to draft safety plans at high-risk schools.

And though there is no single solution to fit every school, experts agree there are basic steps districts can take: train teachers to spot trouble and calm rowdy students; hire more counselors and behavior experts to respond to problems; and add security officers taught to build relationships with students.

In Pinellas, they gave the five schools the same staffing as other, far less violent schools….

District leaders understaffed the five schools for years….

Part Three, 17 October 2015: Who’s my teacher today? In St. Petersburg’s worst schools, your teacher likely has less experience or a troubled past. Many simply quit.

[W]hen 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….

Today [17 October 2015], 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.

It’s not unusual to see dysfunction at schools wracked by poverty. But reducing teacher turnover at these five schools was within the district’s control….

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….

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….

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….

Faced with high turnover, Pinellas County’s most segregated elementary schools also have hired teachers with troubled pasts.

They include instructors who have badgered co-workers, committed minor crimes and become physically aggressive with children….

Even when teachers are fired or cut from the schools for poor performance or misconduct, it’s no guarantee they won’t be back in southside classrooms right away — as substitutes….

Part Four, 6 December 2015: 45,942 days lost. In Pinellas County, kids can be suspended for almost anything. And black students are.

Most large Florida school districts are moving away from suspending children for nonviolent misbehavior — part of a nationwide consensus that harsh discipline falls unfairly on black kids and leaves struggling students too far behind.

The Pinellas County School District is an outlier.

Its leaders say teachers and principals know best, and they should be free to suspend students as they see fit.

The result: Black children in Pinellas are suspended at rates seen in virtually no other large school district in Florida. They are regularly kicked out of class for vaguely defined infractions like ‘defiance,’ ‘excessive tardiness’ and ‘electronic device.’

The Tampa Bay Times analyzed a database of more than 600,000 punishments given to children in the district from 2010 to 2015. Then reporters interviewed leaders of the 20 largest school systems in Florida and examined state records to compare them to Pinellas. Among the findings:

Pinellas County suspends black children at higher rates than the six other large school systems in Florida. Black students in Pinellas were 17 percent more likely to be suspended than blacks in Hillsborough, 41 percent more likely than blacks in Palm Beach and 85 percent more likely than blacks in Miami-Dade. They were six times more likely to be suspended than black children in Broward.

More than half of the suspensions given to black students are not for the violent offenses detailed by the Times earlier in this series. They’re not even for borderline cases. They’re for hard-to-define infractions such as ‘not cooperating,’ ‘unauthorized location’ and minor ‘class disruption.’

In five years, black students lost a combined 45,942 school days to suspensions for these and other minor offenses. White students, who outnumber black students 3 to 1, lost 28,665 days by comparison.

Pinellas schools give out-of-school suspensions to black children disproportionately. They suspended blacks at four times the rate of other children based on their respective shares of the population. That’s one of the widest disparities in the state. Sixty-three of Florida’s other 66 school districts hand out suspensions more evenly among races.

The School Board and district leaders have repeatedly rebuffed calls to adopt a discipline matrix, a tool that other districts use to make discipline more colorblind and to keep more kids in the classroom. Just two of the 20 largest school districts in Florida don’t use a discipline matrix. One is Brevard, whose discipline practices are under investigation by the federal government. The other is Pinellas.

Pinellas leaders have stuck with policies that make it harder for suspended students to catch up. Pinellas doesn’t staff in-school suspension sessions with certified teachers, as other districts do. It cut all funding for suspension centers where kids could do school work rather than stay home while being punished. And it prohibits suspended high school students from earning full credit for make-up work, a practice most other large districts have abandoned because it needlessly sets kids back….

[T]here is a growing consensus among national education experts that suspending children for minor offenses is not the answer. Instead, schools should clearly define each infraction and its appropriate punishments. Experts say that leaves less room for teachers and principals to be influenced, even unconsciously, by racial biases….

Education experts across the nation agree that the most fair discipline systems are the ones that are most objective.

Research has shown that teachers and administrators, even if unintentionally, tend to punish black children more often and more harshly if the process is left to their discretion.

The reason is implicit bias — unconscious discrimination against black children by teachers and principals of different cultures, said Russell Skiba, director of the Equity Project at Indiana University and a leading expert in school discipline disparities.

Teachers might interpret a black student’s way of speaking as combative or argumentative, Skiba said. Fear can also play a part, leading teachers who associate black children with danger and threats to overreact to minor misbehavior….

The Times’ analysis of district data found that the disparities go further than how often black students get sent to the office compared to whites. When children of various races are written up for the same offense, black children are more likely to get harsher punishments, the Times found….

Across Florida, other school districts are using a tool to make punishments more fair.

Known as a discipline matrix, the system defines punishable behavior and calibrates punishments to fit the crimes. It explicitly spells out which behaviors merit which consequences rather than leave the decision up to teachers.

A matrix takes the guesswork out of student discipline and helps ensure all students are treated equitably, experts say. It also bars suspensions and other harsh punishments for minor infractions….

Part Five, 23 December 2015: Fundamentally unequal. For most black students in Pinellas, the county’s best schools are out of reach. District leaders made a series of decisions that added up to fewer black children getting into special programs called ‘fundamental’ schools….

Widely viewed as the best schools in the district, fundamentals were originally billed in Pinellas as a way of integrating the school system.

But over the years, School Board members voted for a series of school closures and policy changes that have made it harder for black children to get into the schools — and largely transformed fundamentals into places for affluent white families.

Today [23 December 2015], a Tampa Bay Times investigation has found, more black children are applying to fundamental schools than ever before, but black enrollment at the schools is at an all-time low.

Blacks make up about 19 percent of both the student population and fundamental school applicants.

Yet they are only 12 percent of students attending the schools.

Their share of the total enrollment has been cut in half since 2005, when 25 percent of fundamental school students were black….

Reached by the Times, a majority of School Board members said making changes to the county’s fundamental school system is a low priority, and they are largely satisfied with how it works today. Several questioned why reporters were even asking about it.

Like magnet schools, fundamentals first emerged nationally in the 1970s as a way of driving voluntary integration. The idea was to make the schools so appealing that whites would choose to send their kids to school in black neighborhoods.

Initially popular in socially conservative areas, fundamentals are supposed to hearken back to the school houses of a bygone American era. Students have to follow strict rules and can be kicked out for even minor disobedience. Parents have to sign contracts pledging nightly reviews of their child’s homework and regular attendance at school meetings. If parents are deemed not involved enough, that, too, is grounds for being kicked out.

Pinellas opened its first fundamental in Clearwater in 1976. It had room for about 300 students. Children from anywhere in the county could apply. Admission was decided by lottery.

But unlike other school districts that were adding so-called “choice” programs across the nation, the Pinellas County School Board decided not to offer bus service to fundamentals….

When districts don’t transport children to choice programs, only families that can afford to get their kids to school can make choices outside their neighborhood…

In Pinellas, where 80 percent of black families live near the poverty line, that resulted in a racial bias.

Today, the county’s fundamental schools are largely populated by children from better-off, white families….

When the county’s first fundamental opened in 1976, seats were given out on a first-come, first-served basis. Fifteen percent went to black children, in keeping with a court-ordered racial quota in force at the time.

For 20 years after that, the enrollment process stayed roughly the same.

By the 1990s, parents of all races were clamoring for the fundamentals because they offered structure and because children who got into fundamentals weren’t subject to court-ordered busing to random schools outside their neighborhoods.

The district had four fundamental elementary schools and one middle school, and 24 percent of the students were black.

Then board members made a series of unrelated decisions that benefited white children and added up to fewer black children getting in.

They voted in 1994 to give preference to siblings of students already enrolled and to the children of teachers who worked at the schools. A large majority of fundamental students and teachers were white, so this reduced chances for others.

They opened a fundamental middle school near Clearwater in 1995 rather than continue requiring white families from north county to send their children to Southside in St. Petersburg.

On two occasions they closed fundamentals in black neighborhoods and moved them elsewhere in the name of saving money.

Rather than pay to repair the interior of mold-damaged Childs Park Fundamental Elementary in the heart of St. Petersburg’s black community, they closed the school in 1995 and reopened it in Pasadena Elementary near the Gulf of Mexico — in an area that is 90 percent white.

Facing a budget crunch and an aging Southside Fundamental Middle in 2009, they closed that school and moved it 12 miles away to wealthier, mostly white Madeira Beach.

Then, after moving those schools out of black neighborhoods, board members enacted a major policy change: they voted in 2010 to give families living nearest to fundamental schools priority in the admissions process.

The combined effect reshaped the fundamental school system in ways that made it harder for black children to get seats….

A program that once brought white students into black neighborhoods is now largely operating in white communities….