U.S. Secretary of Education visits troubled St. Petersburg schools

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The U.S. Education Secretary met with staff, students and parents in one of five schools that was the subject of a two-year newspaper investigation.

It found five of the most-segregated and underperforming schools in the state are concentrated in South St. Petersburg.

"Part of you wants to cry," said Secretary Arne Duncan. "This seemed like a man-made disaster. There were a series of either bad decisions or non-decisions."

He met with several dozen people to hear ideas on what can be done to fix the problem, profiled in the Tampa Bay Times.   The investigation found 95 percent of kids in the five poorest and blackest schools in the state were failing state tests.

At one time, the schools were largely OK, but he argued a history of racial inequality, of misusing funding and staff turnover led to the poor performance.

"It's not just a school district issue," he said. "This has to be the entire community coming together, non-profits and social service agencies, churches and faith-based institutions."

Duncan says in addition to fighting for Title I funding, federal money for poor schools, he says there are competitive grants that could help pay for teachers, counselors and more resources to keep schools open longer hours and to provide additional meals for kids who would go hungry otherwise.

"You can't take back the past, but can we get better, faster, over time? Hearing from folks in that room, I think this community can," Duncan said.

District leaders have argued the turnaround is already starting, with the principal of Campbell Park saying discipline referrals have dropped 72 percent and the school has moved up twelve places statewide.

"I do think being here in 2015 feels very different than being here in 2011 and 2012," said Duncan.

We spoke to a teacher and parent at another district school, Brittney Daniels, who says she hopes the attention the problem is getting puts pressure in the right places.

"The staff gives 100 percent," said Daniels. "The administration, they do what they can, the school board. Everyone is trying to put their part in, so that all the kids are being reached."