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    Test scores suggest geographic division

    The apparent disparity between schools in north and south Pinellas may have multiple contributing factors.

    By WAVENEY ANN MOORE

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 4, 2001


    ST. PETERSBURG -- As the state grades its schools again this year, it would appear that the real estate adage rings true: Location. Location. Location.

    Out of 12 grade schools that got an A in Pinellas County, only one, Madeira Beach Elementary, is in south Pinellas. Among middle schools, two -- Bay Point and Southside Fundamental -- received the only A's in the southern half of the county, compared with seven in north Pinellas. The trend, however, doesn't hold for high schools. One high school from either side of the divide, St. Petersburg High School in the south and East Lake in the north, snagged an A.

    Does the difference in standing between north and south point to poorer schools in southern Pinellas? And does this bode ill for "controlled choice," the post-desegregation program that begins in 2003?

    Pinellas Schools spokesman Ron Stone thinks that the state's grades give an inaccurate assessment of the district's schools.

    "That's a snapshot of a group of students who took the test on a given day," Stone said.

    "If you look at some of the programs in St. Petersburg, you've got some wonderful attractors down there. . . . It is a travesty that the state is using student performance scores as a means of grading schools."

    The state's grades alone, he said, should not be used by parents to determine which schools their children attend.

    "We're going into the choice concept now, which lets parents choose either schools closer to home or schools that have a program of a particular interest to their children," Stone said.

    "We have emphasised that school grades should not be the primary factor in a parent's selection of a school. The FCAT test is a snapshot. It's one group of children tested in one year, and it really doesn't speak to the quality of the teaching, the programs or the administration of the school. It simply says how children did on a given day, on a given test. What we encourage parents to do is visit the school and make their choice on that rather than on the test score."

    Under controlled choice, the Pinellas School District will be divided into attendance areas, and students will be allowed to apply to attend schools in their area. Controlled choice is a result of an agreement between the School Board and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to settle a 30-year-old federal lawsuit that led to race ratios in schools and busing to meet those ratios.

    Educators point to student demographics, in part, when explaining the disparity between the grades earned by north and south county schools.

    The apparent disparity "is a good indication that there are many factors that enter into a child's learning," said Gaye Lively, principal of Bay Point Elementary School.

    Students' experiences and values affect their learning, she said, adding that her diverse student body comes from both north and south county.

    "What you're finding in a testing situation is, socioeconomic status has an impact on testing and there's been national research studies done to support that," Stone said. "And if you look at the demographics in Pinellas County, the way our schools are situated, you see that divide as you look at north and south county schools."

    More north county students, he said, come from affluent backgrounds.

    Although indicators such as the number of students on the free and reduced lunch programs suggest low-income families, other factors also appear to divide schools on either side of the north-south compass.

    Figures for the 1999-2000 school year show that at Lakewood Elementary School, which dropped from a C two years in a row to a D, the average number of years of teacher experience was 8.2, compared with 15.4 at Dunedin Elementary and 16.9 at Belcher Elementary, each of which jumped from C's to A's this year.

    The percentage of children receiving free or reduced-price lunches was 37.3 at Bay Point Elementary last year, 39.4 at Belcher and 40 at Dunedin. Gulfport Elementary, which received a D, had 73.6 percent of its students in the program. Lakewood Elementary, which also received a D, had 75.2 percent.

    For middle schools, at Bay Point, which went from a C to an A this year, the percentage of teachers with advanced degrees was 25.4 during the 1999-2000 school year. At Dunedin Highland, which also jumped from a C to an A, the percentage was 20.4. Largo Middle, which also improved from a C to an A, had a percentage of 39.0. At Azalea Middle School, which has remained a C school for the past three years, the percentage of teachers with advanced degrees was 17.4.

    Among high schools during the 1999-2000 year, the graduation rate was 61 percent for St. Petersburg High School, which improved from a B to an A this year. The graduation rate was 75.5 percent for East Lake High, which got an A, and 78.2 percent at Palm Harbor University High, which dropped from an A to a B. Lakewood High School, which improved from a C to a B, had a 57.9 percent graduation rate.

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