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Money, Mentors and Motivation: St. Petersburg Community Pitches In To Support Struggling Schools

Courtesy Carlos Childs
The Right Reverend Barry Howe and his wife Mary dole out cupcakes at Campbell Park Elementary School's recent neighborhood block party.

The first thing you notice at Campbell Park Elementary School in St. Petersburg are all the signs. An oversized poster reads "No Fear, No Limits, No Excuses" in big block letters. A wooden plaque is inscribed in flowering cursive with the phrase, "Always Be Kind." The affirmations are just a part of an effort to transform the school's culture in the wake of a newspaper investigation on failing majority black schools in Pinellas County.

Since then, the district adopted a series of reforms to address disparities in the school system. A newly released district report shows that suspensions are down and attendance is up at eight struggling elementary schools in Pinellas County.  Official’s hope that will translate into better school grades for some of Florida's worst performing schools.

But the scrutiny had a broader impact in the community. 

Carlos Childs is the Family & Community Liaison at Campbell Park Elementary. He says in the past year, numerous individuals and organizations have approached him to ask how they can help.

When a parent asks that question, it's typically for their own child's best interest. But community-led efforts seek to change the system for all children. Katie Churchwell is the Reverend Canon for The Cathedral of St. Peter. Last year the St. Petersburg church “adopted" Campbell Park's 5th grade classrooms.

Campbell Park Elementary School Community Liaison Carlos Childs and The Rev. Canon Katie Churchwell at an "appreciation" breakfast for teachers and staff on the first day of school.

"We believe very strongly in the separation between church and state,” Churchwell said. “This isn't some back- handed way to get people to come to church but the reason we felt like we should be involved was because that's what neighbors do."

The church has hosted several teacher appreciation events and bought a refrigerator for the staff break room after their old one was zapped by lightning, which allowed the school to use that money elsewhere.  

Churchwell said the aim is to boost morale.

"Being labeled a failure factory has impacted that school in ways that I don't believe were intended,” she said. “Really great things have happened with that expose. They’ve received funding, they’re getting attention paid to them, but the unintended consequences are that those teachers and support staff and students,  personally feel like that they've been labeled as failures."

A study by the Program for International Student Assessment reports that students at schools where teachers have better morale are less likely to be low performers. Tackling low performance, it says, requires stepping in as early as possible.

That's why dozens of members of the church have signed on to be mentors at Campbell Park.  Carlos Childs, the community liaison, said it makes a difference.

"For example, we had a young man who gets in trouble quite a bit,” he said. “But he knows that his mentor comes on a certain day of the week so one particular day he got into it with another student and before he made the bad choice he actually said out loud, 'You know what, I'm not going to make that bad choice because my mentor is coming today and I really want to see him.'"

Credit Katie Churchwell
Teachers and support staff at Campbell Park Elementary at an "appreciation" breakfast sponsored by the Cathedral of St. Peter in St. Petersburg.

These community efforts hope to build on specific changes the Pinellas County School District is making for these schools. That included paying teachers more, creating a longer school day and hiring a minority achievement officer.  The new report shows some gains in math scores at Campbell Park Elementary. The school will have a better picture later this year when the Florida Department of Education releases results from the state's upcoming spring testing season.

But community groups like the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg aren't waiting.

“Education is probably the most critical social determinant of health elements,” said Randall Russell, the organization’s president and CEO. “In early life, and really until really the age of 25, our brains are still forming. If there’s not good exposure and stimulation, then we don’t have the capacity to live up to our full potential or even our full IQ. So without education, it’s hard to imagine having a healthy community overall.”

Last year, the group awarded a grant for a pilot exercise program for Pinellas County students who struggle with math. Russell said they are now researching options in order to provide free Internet to low-income families -- so kids have access to the same resources as their upper and middle class peers.

Randall Russell is the CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg.

"Equity of education is really what we're after here. And this is the 17th largest school system in America,” he said. “How do you take 110,000 students and make sure everybody has an equitable education?"

But that's no small order when confronting big issues like generational poverty.

"So are we ready to that? What are the risks that are being taken to do that," he asked. "We can't stand in our silos and expect others to lift up."

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.
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