Gulfport Montessori Elementary kicked off the new academic year Wednesday, August 10 with more than 70 percent of its staff new to the school and a new principal who says he’ll get the learning institution turned around as soon as possible.
“This school is on the cusp of doing something special in digging itself out and we’re going to do it quick,” Principal Jess Hathaway said Monday, August 8 in an interview in his new office. “We don’t wing anything here. Everything has a vision and a plan.”
Hathaway was referring to the school’s designation as a “turnaround” school in April after receiving a “D” grade from state education officials four years in a row largely on the basis of 3rd, 4th and 5th graders’ scores in the Florida Standards Assessments. The school has around 800 students in 40 classrooms and a total of 103 employees
Hathaway said he doesn’t believe the D grade indicates what’s really going on at the school.
“There are some great families and some great kids here,” he said. “I don’t think that grade reflects this community or this building or the population that’s here at all.”
Among the biggest changes children and their families will see as the new year gets underway: an extended school day from 8:35 a.m. to 3.05 p.m.; an extra daily half hour dedicated to reading; an enhanced library/media center and a new computer lab with 60 new laptops; an increase from three to five academic coaches; $10,000 invested in sprucing up the physical facilities; and more emphasis on appropriate student behavior.
Barbara Pace, president of the Gulfport PTA, said that while “change in any form can be scary,” her group has been working with the new principal and is looking forward to the changes.
“From what we as a PTA Board have seen in Gulfport Elementary’s preparations for the 2016-2017 school year we are extremely excited,” she said Tuesday August 9. “From the re-arrangement of classrooms to facilitating an enhanced learning environment, to a beautification of our campus we are anticipating a great year!”
Hathaway, a native of Willsboro, NY, who has worked in the Pinellas County educational system since 1997, most recently spent three years at Walsingham Elementary in Largo, first as assistant principal and then as principal.
Tapped for the Gulfport job in late April, he spent the summer interviewing and hiring new teachers, revising curricula, sprucing up the school building, reorganizing the schedule and planning new uses for existing facilities.
One of the biggest tasks was replacing the many staffers who opted not to return to the school.
“A little over 70 percent of the people [instructional and support] left at the end of last year,” he said.
Eighteen teachers chose not to reapply for their Gulfport jobs, nine retired or left education, and three who reapplied were not rehired, Hathaway said.
Meanwhile, former Principal James Pribble, who Hathaway said was very helpful during the transition, is now assistant principal at Frontier Elementary in Clearwater, and former Assistant Principal Brenda Butler is assistant principal at Azalea Elementary.
In hiring new educational staff, Hathaway said he aimed to hire teachers that matched the racial composition of the student body. Almost 60 percent of students at Gulfport Elementary are African American.
Hathaway said he received applications from around the country, and some of the new teachers hail from as far away as Wisconsin, New Mexico and Arizona.
Students and parents will also see a lot of changes in the physical plant. The whole building was power washed and the paint was touched up. There’s new landscaping, and picnic tables and benches have been ordered to encourage parents to spend time outside with their children. New signs will be going up. A computer lab is being set up in the old fifth grade classroom next to the art room.
The library/media center has been reorganized and will now be the social focus of the school, Hathaway said. A former empty storage room off the library has been converted to a center for the PTA, volunteers and community outreach.
“The hub of any school should be its library,” he said.
Also, the school garden will be moved from a small, shady corner in the courtyard to a large sunny field on the north side of the campus where each of the 40 classrooms will have their own row, said Hathaway.
“We really want a building that our community and our students are proud of,” he said.
Changes have also been made in the area of academics.
“Good planning and solid core instruction take care of a lot of issues,” Hathaway said, “because students that are engaged and want to be in the classroom will do better.”
The longer school day will allow more focus on reading skills: In addition to their regular reading classes, all the children will spend the first half hour of the day reading. There also will be more focus on behavior, and children will spend at least 10 minutes of their lunch hour playing outside to help work off some energy.
The after-school extended-learning program will also be expanded, with students required to complete 60 to 90 minutes of tutoring to participate in enrichment clubs with offerings ranging from fitness and dance to football and art.
“We will teach and re-teach what good behavior looks like,” said Hathaway, who addresses all the staff with courtesy titles such as Mrs. or Doctor to create a more professional atmosphere.
There will also be more cooperation between the traditional and Montessori classrooms.
“We’d like to see them plan together more, take the best ideas from each group,” he said. Two Montessori classrooms have been added this year, raising the total from 12 to 14.
Hathaway said he also wants to increase the school’s ties the city of Gulfport and the community in general.
“I’m looking for a partnership here,” he said, adding that he’d love to see the students’ artwork displayed downtown and students performing in the theater with their musical instruments.
Gulfport Mayor Sam Henderson, who in April had protested the suddenness and speed with which the school had been slated for turnaround, said Tuesday August 9 that while he remained disappointed with how the transition was handled by the Pinellas County School Board, “We have to collectively move forward.
“I extend Gulfport’s welcome to our new Principal, Mr. Hathaway, and our new staff members,” he said. “They can expect our support and participation as they give their best efforts to improve GPE for students, families and teachers.”
Hathaway had the following message for parents: “Come in. See what’s happening here. Be part of the turnaround process. Be engaged. Know who’s in front of your child every day, but come here. Our doors are open. We want you in classrooms. We can’t do this without our Gulfport families.”
As for himself, he said: “I’m really excited to be here. This place is going to change.”