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'Failure Factories': For 31 kids, this is what it’s like to go to resegregated schools

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'Failure Factories': For 31 kids, this is what it’s like to go to resegregated schools

Picture of Michael LaForgia
Inside five of the worst schools in Florida, children tell a story of fear, failing and a certainty that something better must be out there.
Tampa Bay Times
Tuesday, September 1, 2015

By Lisa Gartner and Michael LaForgia 

Here, the kitchen stove beeps. There, a mother knocks on her son’s door. For the family uprooted by rats and mold, the motel’s front desk calls.

It’s 7 a.m. and alarms are going off all across south St. Petersburg.

It’s time for school.

For thousands of children in Pinellas County’s black neighborhoods that is reason to worry. Schools aren’t a place to learn, they’re a place to fear.

Children cry to their mothers. They fake stomachaches.

And then they’re on their way.

To Campbell Park. To Fairmount Park. To Lakewood, Maximo, or Melrose. The five worst elementary schools in Pinellas County­ — all among the very worst schools in Florida — have seats with their name tags on them.

At the drop-off area, kids already are punching and kicking each other. Parents are leaving their cars to break up brawls. The violence spills inside, to the hallways and classrooms, where these children know they can be attacked for no reason.

The children hurry to class.

Here, a few bad kids spoil lessons for everyone. No one can focus when the same few students are jumping on desks in the middle of lessons. They crawl on the floor and curse at each other. They swing chairs and discuss sex acts, casually, using crude words — even the littlest kids. Some of them leave class altogether and roam the halls.

Chronic class disruption is day-to-day life for students in south St. Petersburg classrooms. It both causes and is caused by another reality for these children: Too often, their teacher is someone they don’t recognize. She is a substitute. Or he is a full-time replacement.

For some kids, the first teacher left in the middle of the year. So did the second teacher, and the third — and the fifth and the 14th.

Overwhelmed, teachers hand out discipline referrals over the smallest things — for pouting, for laughing too loud, for telling classmates to quiet down.

When it comes to how to handle unruly students, teachers say they have no training, or not enough, or some training and no support. The behavior plans handed down from administrators at one school tell teachers to give students the “evil eye” as a first strategy to get them to behave.

Unsure of what else to do, they hand out referrals that turn into out-of-school suspensions. No one thinks that solves the problem.

Some teachers resort to calling police, or making up their own rule of law. At one school, a teacher tied a handicapped child to a chair to get him to stop thrashing.

It’s no wonder parents feel like their kids get in trouble for nothing.

When it’s time to go to lunch, the children are slow to line up. The cafeteria is yet another setting for the constant bullying. If it’s not about their looks — their hair, their teeth — it’s about their poor parents and run-down homes. Their stuff is destroyed and they’re left in tears.

The children start to pack up before the final bell. They know their parents, grandparents, guardians will look through their bags when they get home. The adults in their lives wonder why hardly any work is sent home. They’ve written notes to their children’s teachers; why haven’t the teachers responded? When teachers call, it’s almost always when something is wrong. Casual notes from some teachers offer no details: “Kicked by Michael.” Nothing more.

Some parents are so desperate to help their children that they drive them an hour away, or they up and move in search of a better school.

Parents who do send their children to these schools watch their grades fall steadily. Some of them have already failed standardized tests. Some are repeating grades. They bring home F’s on report cards. They used to be star students, but that was somewhere else.

They know there are better options out there. Schools just a few miles away where classrooms aren’t constantly disrupted and where children learn. But these are special schools, magnet programs with limited space. Families from across the county clamor to get their children in.

Not everyone can win the lottery.

This year, more than 2,000 children are stuck at five of the worst elementary schools in Florida. Many have no way to get out.

So.

They go home. They eat dinner. They watch cartoons. They climb into bed.

Then they set the alarm clocks.

Related: 'Failure Factories': Trying to get out

[This story was originally published by the Tampa Bay Times.]