Principals get personal to turn "failure factory' schools around

- Turning around a failing school is hard work. No one knows that better than the principals at the five schools labeled “failure factories” in the Tampa Bay Times.

Teachers deal with so much that is out of their control.

For their school to be successful, the kids have to be successful.  For that to happen, the focus has to first be on their home life. If that seems too personal and a little invasive— it is.

But they're doing it, and it's working.

Maximo Elementary is one of those schools labeled a “failure factory.” But thanks to Principal LaKisha Falana, in just one year that grade was raised to a C.

"When I saw it, I'm not going to lie, I flipped out in here," Falana said, "We've come a long way. We have a long way to go, but we are celebrating our successes that we've made... with hard work and prayer, we made it."

It's not enough for Falana and her teachers to aim for the better school grade though. They are fighting to bridge the gap between what happens in the classroom and what happens at home.

"Life has happened to our kids," Falana said, "Some of things they are experiencing we haven't had to as adults."

A few miles away-- in a place he likes to call the war room, Dr. Antonio Burt strategizes the transformation of Maximo and seven other F-rated schools.

This is his job: The reformer. 

For him, this is a ground war. These teachers are in the trenches, he says, battling the culture and climate of a day and age they must face to find success.

"It's not acceptable, no. A lot of that is a product of where we are as a society," Burt explained.

He's been on the job a year now, brought on after the Tampa Bay Times published their Failure Factories investigative series.

Fixing the problems requires talking race, money and politics. It will involve leaving bygones where they are and talking tough with the kids. 

"In order for me to be able to listen to you, I've got to one, meet you where you are and two, I can't be afraid to say something you may not like to get your attention," said Burt.

But harder than all of that, is dealing with a crippling lack of teachers that's nearing a public crisis.

Dr. Burt offered to pay teachers more to go into the failing schools. He put a social worker in every school, and a psychologist and family liaison to work with the family at home if they can.

Slowly but surely, Ms. Falana is finding the people she trusts for those positions.

"That was one of the things I said I would not do," Falana said, her face turning more serious, "I would not just put someone in there because they are a warm body. We need to put someone in there that's the right fit for my babies, because my babies deserve the best."

"I am a firm believer that I was called for this task," she said.

And Ms. Falana believes there are others out there just like her, but fighting the stigma is tough.

"They are amazed at what they see," she said, "They'll say, 'This is nothing like what we heard or what we were told or what we read."

Back in the classroom, the first graders are playing and dancing. This is Dr. Burt's one mandatory rule. Something he insists on: Spending the first 10 or 15 minutes just... being a kid.

Falana and her kids push forward with hard work, dedication, and a laser-like focus on instruction.

They'll keep fighting; hoping for more good teachers to sign on, stick it out and show these kids what it really means to care.

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