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Federal, state education officials visit Lakewood Elementary

Megan Holmes

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Federal, state, county and local officials visited Lakewood Elementary School Friday to see firsthand the positive changes implemented over the last 18 months.

Frank Brogan, Assistant U.S. Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education, joined Richard Corcoran, Florida Commissioner of Education, along with Pinellas County Superintendent Michael Grego,and St. Petersburg City Council Member Robert Blackmon, among others, for an in-depth presentation of the changes made to curriculum, teaching methods and individualized interventions.

Lakewood Elementary Principal Stephanie Woodford told St. Pete Catalyst that Brogan had asked Corcoran to take him on a tour of schools doing innovative things in education. The pair visited two schools in Orlando, two schools in Tampa, and then went “well out of their way” to visit Lakewood Elementary in South St. Petersburg.

That fact was made all the more surprising given that Lakewood Elementary has not earned a grade higher than a D since 2012, and in the 2017-2018 school year, was the lowest performing elementary school in the State of Florida. 

But major changes were made to the school in the 2018-2019 school year, thanks to a requirement from a 2017 Florida state law, which states that any public school with three consecutive grades below a C to pick one of three options: close the school and reassign students elsewhere; reopen the school as a charter; or contract with an outside company to manage the school.

Pinellas County Schools hired an outside management company, Learning Sciences International, which has stayed on for the 2019-2020 school year. The school also gained a new principal in Woodford in 2018. The school has made major changes in teaching staff as well. Following the 2017-2018 school year, 85 percent staff members left, either by their own choice or the school’s decision. 

Friday was Corcoran’s second visit in just three weeks. His last visit was during the Pinellas County School District’s appeal to the Florida Department of Education, asking for a one-year extension to the school’s turnaround program with Learning Sciences International. According to Woodford, Corcoran was planning to reject the extension before he visited the school and saw the sincere efforts of students, staff, teachers and parents.

The extension will allow Lakewood another year to get its state-wide testing numbers to a “C” instead of the previous “F” levels in 2017-2018 and 2018-2019. Without the extension, the school would have had to go back to the drawing board if its numbers didn’t reach a “C” level at the end of this school year. 

Previously battling high turnover and burnout, between the 2018-2019 school year and the 2019-2020 school year, Lakewood saw just four staff members leave. The school has also seen a 90 percent reduction in discipline measures, and an upward trend on standardized assessments. These changes take time to show up in numbers, Woodford explained, but she has seen the school transform first-hand. 

Working collaboratively with Learning Sciences International, the school has implemented “every intervention known to man,” said Woodford. In fact, most children have a nearly individualized curriculum. Teachers work one-on-one with students, and administrators are careful to understand students’ home lives and how their home life affects learning and attendance. The school has even implemented a home visit program to gain a better perspective on students’ situations.

At one point, 100 intervention groups were going on simultaneously at Lakewood, all centered around academics. Those interventions have helped curb behavioral problems, which Woodford said often stem from feelings of failure or inadequacy. If students can’t read, or can’t perform an activity that they feel is expected of them, they’ll often run or act out.

Despite the improvements, Woodford, who was recruited to Lakewood by Superintendent Grego, acknowledged that the work has been far from easy. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” she said, “and I’ve never worked in such a challenging environment.”

Parents, students and staff were discouraged by recent negative reports in the media, citing outdated numbers that the school says were reported three school-years ago. 

“We want the community to know how well we’re doing,” said Woodford, who refers to each of  her students as “scholars,” to emphasize their academic potential.

Blackmon told the St. Pete Catalyst that he was particularly impressed by the scholars he met with during the school’s presentation, including one child who has chosen to go into administrative offices to practice reading during his class’ PT and art hours, knowing he has previously had problems with acting out during unstructured time.

When Blackmon asked students which classes they enjoyed the most, nearly all expressed interest in STEM, explaining that they knew the field could provide good jobs for them in the future. That sort of future-thinking is new, according to Woodford, and is one of the biggest changes she has seen in her 18 months on the ground at Lakewood. 

“The emphasis on STEM was huge,” said Blackmon. “Not only for the sake of knowledge, but also for the children’s employment prospects and helping those that are lower income out of poverty. These kids may someday be solving the problems of our environment and infrastructure locally and state-wide.”

Other innovative approaches stood out to Blackmon as well, like the school’s use of a text message system between staff instead of a disruptive or potentially embarrassing intercom, and one-on-one school counseling and mental health care. 

The experience, Blackmon said candidly, changed his mind about what was really going on at Lakewood. “That’s why you have to get hands on and see these things,” Blackmon said. “I was extremely pessimistic and judgmental due to media coverage. That’s not the case. Every single teacher and all of the staff are very engaged. I give the students a lot of credit.”

“I think it says a lot that federal, state, county and city officials all came together around this school,” said Blackmon. “We need to take community-based approaches to these issues, to show off the positives, not just the negatives.

“It’s heartwarming that Secretary Brogan and Secretary Corcoran care so much about our local community. I am thankful for all they are doing, and for the tireless commitment that the teachers, Principal Woodford, Assistant Principal Nellenbach and Superintendent Grego have for students in our city.”

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