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Her task: get 20 schools up to speed

High hopes ride on educator Barbara Harris.

By Thomas C. Tobin, Times Staff Writer
Published February 23, 2008

Associate Superintendent Barbara Hires reads writing examples from third grade student folders during a surprise visit to 74th Street Elementary School in St Petersburg.
[Martha Rial | Times]
[Martha Rial | Times]
Hires oversees Success Zone; where educators are working to improve test scores at 20 Pinellas County Schools that have failed to meet separate federal standards.

[Martha Rial | Times]
Hires (right) listens to third grader Brittany Curtice (center) read from "The Silver Spindle" with her classmate Aleicia Dukes (left) at 74th Street Elementary School in St Petersburg.

Bill Nordmark, the principal at Walsingham Elementary, recalled breaking the news to his teachers.

"They were just a little, I think ..."

"Hysterical," suggested assistant principal Lisa Long, jumping in. "Might as well say it."

"They were extremely worried," Nordmark said.

It took a few years, but some of the harshest consequences of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 are finally kicking in. Walsingham, a "B" school by state standards, is failing some of its students under the federal law and must be "restructured."

That means Nordmark and some teachers might have to be reinterviewed if they are to stay at the Largo school next year.

The task will fall largely to associate superintendent Barbara Hires, appointed last summer to oversee Walsingham and 19 other elementary schools in danger of failing to meet federal standards for a fifth straight year.

The new arrangement puts Hires, 52, in rare company as Pinellas joins a handful of large school districts that have grouped some of their most troubled schools into mini-districts. In addition to changing staff, the plan is to give them extra help and the chance to experiment with new methods.

Pinellas has dubbed Hires' new territory the "Success Zone," a name filled with high hopes.

District officials say the shakeup is not as bad as it sounds. Restructuring, they say, gives teachers, parents and principals a rare chance to reinvent a school.

They say the work will be hard but rewarding. Teachers who don't think they're up for the challenge can transfer and won't be judged.

"We don't have time for griping, moaning," Long said she told school staff at a recent meeting.

"We're here for kids and we've got to get the job done."

At first glance, a suburban school like Walsingham does not appear to require drastic intervention. The number of students proficient in reading and math is up 30 percent and 40 percent, respectively, over the last five years. Low-income students have made whopping gains over the same period.

But the school can't seem to move its writing scores, and it struggles to keep pace with federal benchmarks for disabled students and the growing number of Hispanic children who arrive with little or no English skills.

Regular surprise visits

Restructuring plans for Walsingham and most other Success Zone schools are due next month. About 1,900 schools nationally are in the same situation.

The number is expected to reach 5,000 in two years, according to a report, the Turnaround Challenge, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Success Zone schools get regular surprise visits by Hires and her small team of administrators, who pop in on classrooms to see if teachers are using practices the district says are proven to boost learning in high-poverty schools.

Says Hires: "I tell principals this all the time: It's criminal to have a child sit in a classroom for a year and not make learning gains."

For some teachers, however, the detailed inspections feel nitpicky and too prescriptive - something akin to running a white-gloved finger across the top of the door frame.

"They're feeling very micromanaged and not treated as professionals, and it's causing a lot of irritation in the workforce," said Kim Black, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. "We're trying to make (students) into little robots coming out of a factory and that's not what education is all about."

Hires argues that consistency among classrooms and across grade levels is important for low-income kids, who often come from chaotic homes.

"They need that structure," she said, insisting that teachers have the freedom to bring their own style to the classroom.

Until schools come up with something better as part of their restructuring plans, she says the inspections will continue with the same focus.

So, for now, Hires is a stickler for detailed classroom schedules that let kids know what's happening every day. She looks for "word walls" to help build vocabulary and "anchor charts" to guide students through tasks such as writing a story in the FCAT style.

She wants teachers to lecture no more than 10 or 15 minutes before breaking the class into smaller groups. Students often learn more that way, she says.

"You don't work in isolation in real life," Hires says. "I like to hear noise. I like to hear kids talking, moving ... hands-on, exploring."

She rails against classroom clutter. But if books in the classroom library are askew, that's good, she says. It means the kids are using them.

Hires also watches for signs that students are getting what they need individually - no holding everyone back while a few try to catch up.

She's a fiend for data, peeking in on student test scores from her office computer, spotting trends and pressing principals to change what isn't working.

On a recent round of inspections, Hires saw much to like and some that gave her pause.

In an empty classroom where the kids were away at lunch, Hires said she could tell by the walls that the teacher had talent. "It's a feel, it's a look in that classroom," she said. "You know that's a teacher doing great things."

At another school she found students thoroughly engaged in a fast-paced math lesson, raising hands, anticipating questions. "Let's think about that," the teacher kept saying.

"She's phenomenal," Hires said later. "Those kids were like hanging on every word."

Recalling the past

Later that day, however, she wrinkled her nose when a teacher asked students basic questions instead of "higher order" questions that trigger critical thinking.

She learned of teachers who insist on using their own methods instead of those prescribed by the district, which Hires says are backed by research.

Of one teacher in particular, Hires remarked: Maybe some day she'll realize "it's not about her, it's about the kids."

A former teacher and principal in her 29th year with Pinellas schools, Hires knows what the Success Zone faces: low-income kids who come to school with small vocabularies, behavior issues and other baggage; kids with disabilities; kids who speak little or no English.

She is sympathetic to her fellow educators, but has a special connection to the students: "I was one of them."

Hires grew up poor, the daughter of uneducated parents who picked potatoes and cabbage in tiny Hastings, an outpost near St. Augustine that provided winter vegetables for Henry Flagler's luxury hotels.

When she reached fifth grade, her parents removed her from an all-black school and enrolled her at a mostly white school in Palatka. She says her new teachers and classmates treated her coldly but she learned.

"Sometimes when I think about it I want to cry because I took a lot of abuse," Hires said. "I used to ride the bus and I remember the kids kicking me. I had bruises on my legs when I got home, spit in my hair. I went through a lot, but it was well worth it. ... And that's why I tell teachers and principals that it's hard and very difficult for you to tell me that every child can't learn."

For Hires, the lesson was that schools can overcome the problems children bring to school. Hence her motto: "Children do not fail us. We fail to meet their needs."

Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said he chose Hires to lead the zone because of her directness, her ability to build trust and her attention to detail.

He said restructuring can include a minor change such as tweaking the reading curriculum, or major changes such as lengthening the school day.

The district will likely be less prescriptive for schools that find success using other methods, he said.

"I'm not really interested in change for the sake of change," Wilcox said. "I'm interested in change that changes outcomes."

The Pinellas 'Success Zone'

While some schools in the zone have good letter grades from the state, they have been unable to meet federal standards. Here is a look at how the schools compare to each other and to elementaries across the county and state.

School Grade Pct. proficient in reading (overall) Pct. proficient in reading (kids in poverty) Pct. living in poverty Percent minority Blanton A 63 47 76 62 Clearwater Avenue C 59 48 78 60 Eisenhower C 71 54 78 72 Gulfport Montessori C 59 43 74 55 High Point B 66 56 82 71 Kings Highway A 61 50 82 84 Lakewood B 59 47 84 71 Lealman A 64 49 79 43 Maximo C 61 45 75 73 Melrose C 60 48 74 70 Pinellas Park C 69 58 67 46 Rio Vista A 67 53 69 45 Sandy Lane A 67 54 84 83 Seventy-Fourth St. C 56 47 78 51 Shore Acres A 79 59 53 43 Skyview A 76 64 67 31 South Ward D 64 53 77 65 Tyrone A 67 51 70 57 Walsingham B 69 53 60 48 Woodlawn C 53 42 78 63 Districtwide n/a 59 46 34 41 Statewide n/a 57 46 45 53 Florida Department of Education


Barbara F. Hires

Born: 1955, Hastings, Fla.

Title: Associate Superintendent, School Success

First teaching job: Bauder Elementary. Started 1978, stayed nine years.

Other jobs: assistant principal, Melrose Elementary; principal, Lealman Avenue Elementary; principal, Maximo Elementary.

Education: Bethune-Cookman College, Stetson Univeristy, Nova Southeastern University.

Personal: Married with two sons who graduated from Pinellas schools.

Thoughts on her new job: "This is my calling in life, and I know it."

[Last modified February 23, 2008, 01:48:18]

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