Part One in a series.
Lakewood Elementary was once considered one of the worst-performing public schools in Florida; after perennially receiving “D” and “F” grades from the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE), it was labeled a “failure factory” in the 2015 Tampa Bay Times series of the same name that would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize.
Thanks to a partnership between the school and Learning Sciences International (LSI), along with a laser-like focus on improving student learning outcomes by teachers and administrators, the school is a failure no more. In fact, it is now a model of success.
LSI is a national provider of K-12 school turnaround systems, and in 2018 it began to implement its “Schools for Rigor and Equity” model at Lakewood. LSI’s James R. Mills, who served as Lakewood’s leadership coach during the first year of the partnership, knew the group had its work cut out for them from the start.
“The majority of the students were more than two years behind grade level when we arrived,” said Mills. “When we did our initial testing, we had approximately 87% of our students reading at a kindergarten level in third grade. I’ve worked with many schools over the years, and I just had never seen anything that dire in terms of literacy development.”
Around that same time, Area Superintendent Stephanie Woodford came to the school she would later fall in love with. In March of 2018, she was asked to step in while Lakewood’s principal took a leave of absence. She told the Catalyst she was “going over there for five weeks to cover, and I ended up staying three years.” One of the reasons Woodford stayed was the budding partnership with LSI.
Woodford ended up remaining through the end of that school year and connected with LSI while it conducted its initial assessment. When it was decided the organization would stay and tackle the problem, Woodford was asked to stay as well. She would then become the next principal of Lakewood, overseeing its renaissance from 2018-2021.
“All of LSI, all of Lakewood, we partnered for three years with them,” said Woodford. “All three years they were hand-in-hand with us.”
She also realized turning the school around was not going to be easy.
“There was a lot of lack of structure and procedures,” said Woodford. “What I found was a lot of the kids academically were substantially behind, so we had a lot of work to do.”
Even though the school received an “F” her first full year at the helm, the data showed the school also improved by 62 points. It should also be noted that data and analytics are at the core of Lakewood’s transformation.
In Woodford’s second year, she said that “all of our data trends were up,” and they were expecting to earn a high “C” or a “B” grade from the FLDOE. Unfortunately, school grading was canceled due to the pandemic. Last year, Woodford said they projected the entire year as a high “B,” but managed to pull out an “A.”
“As much as everybody will say ‘F’ to an ‘A’ in a year – it was three hard years of work and continued growth throughout those three years,” she said.
According to LSI, a strategic, customized framework was implemented in conjunction with stakeholders from Lakewood, Pinellas County Schools, and the community. They then established a vision, set goals, and outlined action steps necessary to achieve those goals.
Woodford credits LSI for helping to identify concerns and bringing in coaching support, which was vital during Woodford’s first year at the school as they “basically reinvented the school with a brand new staff.”
That first year 25 new staff members were hired, compared to just four this year. Woodford is quick to point out this would not be possible without them.
“That made the biggest difference – the right staff at that school,” she said. “The teachers are just amazing, and it is such a joyful place.”
Woodford, who now oversees 30 schools as area superintendent, regularly takes other principals to tour Lakewood and discuss ideas, even those from other school districts. They talk through the data, go over schedules, walk through classrooms. Woodford believes that seeing how the process works is more enlightening than just hearing about it.
Saturday: Part Two – an inside look at Lakewood Elementary.