Hard Work at Gulfport Elementary is Paying Off

Jess Hathaway, principal of Gulfport Montessori Elementary School, shows off a new mural designed and painted by students in the after-school program along with one of several new picnic tables designed to encourage outside gatherings.

A year after Gulfport Montessori Elementary School experienced a major shakeup due to low scores on state tests, school officials say things are turning around.

The K-5 school’s grade rose from a “D” to a “C” in the state’s academic rankings.

Principal Jess Hathaway said the improved grade resulted from an all-out drive to change the school culture and create a sense of pride in the institution.

“It was professional development, it was buy-in from the staff, it was our after-school tutoring and enrichment programs, it was involved families, and it was a total effort from the school and the community,” he said Monday, August 21. “It felt good to see the hard work and effort everyone put in pay off in year one.”

At the start of the 2016-17 academic year, 70 percent of the school’s staff was new, including the top leadership. The Pinellas County School Board aimed to jolt the school to higher standards after four consecutive years of D grades based on 3rd, 4th and 5th graders’ poor scores in the Florida Standards Assessments.

When the latest assessment scores were published this June, they showed increases of up to 18 percentage points in the scores of Gulfport Elementary’s lowest performing students. That brought the school’s current grade up to a “C.”

Barbara Pace, president of the Gulfport Montessori Elementary PTA, said the higher grade encourages continued efforts.

“While we do not rest on this accomplishment, and have even higher goals for ourselves, this has validated our work, energized us with another year commitment of learning,” she said.

Gulfport Mayor Sam Henderson, who was an early critic of the PCSB’s radical steps to turn the elementary school around, said he deeply respects and appreciates all the people who committed themselves to make it happen.

“This improvement has happened miraculously and under great duress through the efforts of our past and present teachers, administration, caring parents and community that have worked diligently to help our schools succeed in the face of great and unnecessary adversity,” he said.

Hathaway said improvements can be seen throughout the school population, not just among the lowest performers in specific grades.

Last year, for example, the number of student-misconduct reports filed by teachers plunged to 200 from 640 in 2015-16. The drop resulted in part from greater cultural sensitivity and better lesson planning to keep students engaged, he said.

Also, students in all grades have improved their writing skills and are spending much more time studying online.

“The amount of time students spent online increased four times from the previous year on math and reading academic sites at school and at home,” he said.

Greater community involvement has been a big part of the school’s success, according to Hathaway. Under a new initiative launched last year, city employees can volunteer at the school for an hour a week during work hours; 16 city workers are taking advantage of the opportunity. Students from Stetson University’s College of Law also mentor students and city police officers attend evening gatherings to say hello to the families.

The community is also taking an active role in the PTA’s campaign to raise money for a new playground that will break ground this fall on the west side of the building near the cafeteria. About $6,000 has been raised in buckets inside the school and at local businesses; the ideal goal is about $18,000. The Gulfport Town Shores Women’s Club alone contributed $2,000, Hathaway said.

Improvements to the school’s physical plant have helped boost student, staff and community pride. Picnic tables with blue umbrellas have been strategically placed to encourage outside gatherings. Walls have been painted, grass re-sodded, gardens planted and mulched, and beds prepared for planting a vegetable garden this fall.

School officials are especially proud of two new murals that grace the walls. One, an abstract of the sun, was designed and painted by students in the after-school program. The other, a soothing sea scene outside the media center, was painted by Nick Hollman of Gulfport, a student at the Ringling College of Art and Design who has pledged to paint more.

While Hathaway is pleased with all the changes, he acknowledges here’s a lot of hard work ahead.

“I could not be more proud of last year’s accomplishments and want to thank our entire community for their support,” he said. “But, we still have a ways to go and we are always looking to improve and build upon our successes.”


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