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Guest Column

Better schools, better students, better community

Published October 29, 2006


With the end of court-ordered desegregation in Pinellas County approaching, it is certain that our communities and public schools will be significantly affected, just as they were after the original court decision 35 years ago.

Whether that impact is good or bad will depend on whether we are serious about accomplishing a core objective of our public schools: providing every child with the opportunity to learn enough to find success in launching his or her life.

In this new era, parents should be able to choose which school their child attends, within reasonable geographic limits. Some may want a particular magnet, fundamental or attractor program. Many families will pick a school close to home. This likely will result in less integrated schools, because our county's neighborhoods are not as integrated as our schools have been for the past three decades.

Diversity within our public schools is still a valid goal. Public school leaders should focus on keeping children of different backgrounds voluntarily learning together.

The realization that we are coming to the end of court-ordered desegregation is what motivated me five years ago to dedicate time and seek resources to support St. Petersburg's public schools. Although we have raised more than $10-million from non-city taxpayer money for our city's schools, implemented many programs enhancing school success and achieved a great deal, there is still significant work to be done.

Our goal should be excellence at every school. Parents of all races and backgrounds, when given a choice, will choose the best schools for their children. This is why parents of diverse backgrounds, living in different parts of our county, send their children to schools far away from home that have outstanding programs. Voluntary integration has worked when parents consider the schools desirable.

All students do not step off the bus in the morning with the same advantages. The hard truth is that less than 38 percent of Florida's children in free or reduced lunch programs (our lowest income children) graduate from high school. For those who do not understand the significant challenges facing these kids, I suggest you mentor one. You will learn a lot.

Our School Board has created the School Choice Task Force to develop recommendations on how to proceed following court-ordered desegregation. With the goals of both excellence and diversity in mind, the following are a few suggestions they should consider:

- Commit additional resources to schools based on the number of students in free or reduced lunch programs. Success stories such as Mount Vernon Elementary and Thurgood Marshall Middle demonstrate that schools with large numbers of students from low-income families can achieve results, but they will need sufficient resources. Enhancements must be significant and targeted at making a difference, and the progress should be measured. If students who start out behind get more focused attention, they will have a better chance of catching up and their school will achieve greater success.

- Recruit and retain the best principals for our lowest performing schools, and then support them. Studies constantly confirm that strong leadership is the key to turning around low-performing schools. St. Petersburg's Mount Vernon Elementary, a school where 78 percent of the students received free or reduced lunches in 2001, had a nationally recognized turnaround from a grade D for three years to an A for three years. This success was due in large part to the strategic planning efforts that emerged out of a partnership between Raymond James Financial and strong school leadership. Thurgood Marshall Middle School in Childs Park last year became one of the few middle schools in Florida to advance from a grade C to an A. The principal was promoted to an administrative position at the district office. While it is appropriate to reward success, perhaps we should develop a system that enables a successful principal to advance professionally, and earn more money, while continuing to lead a school.

- Provide financial incentives that encourage teachers and administrators to work at schools with high free and reduced lunch populations. Similar programs have succeeded in other school districts to keep good educators at challenging schools.

- Support and enhance those magnet and fundamental programs that were initially located in neighborhoods with large African-American populations. These programs are working academically and are successful in achieving voluntary integration. Going forward, race may no longer be used as an admission criterion for these programs, but we can promote continued diversity if we aggressively recruit students from all backgrounds for our magnet and fundamental programs. Further expansion of magnet and fundamental programs outside these neighborhoods will detract from the voluntary integration effort and should be approached with caution.

- Offer incentives to encourage parents to keep their children in their existing schools during the next few years. As we go through a transition period, stability for the students and stability for the schools is important.

- Continue to measure the progress of all of our students by evaluating achievement, rewarding success, and holding those at all levels, and all schools, accountable for improvement. While poverty level may be a statistical predictor of student achievement levels, our system has a responsibility to help overcome the challenges facing low-income students and produce success. Among the ways of rewarding success are St. Petersburg's "Top Apple" program, which uses private donations to provide administrators at improving schools with recognition and bonuses, and the state's new "STAR" program, which has directed $6.1-million in tax dollars toward incentive bonuses for Pinellas teachers.

I have visited every public school in St. Petersburg and many outside our city. I have met very hard-working teachers, committed administrators and students eager to learn. Our schools are clearly getting better every single year.

If our focus remains on providing the opportunity for excellence to every student at every school, we can emerge from the coming years with diverse schools that are academically among America's best.

Rick Baker is the mayor of St. Petersburg.

[Last modified October 28, 2006, 09:47:40]

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