St. Petersburg, Fla., Mayor Carries on Predecessor’s Education

August 30, 2010

by Michael Karpman

This article is part of a series featuring ways in which mayors are working to meet the specific goals and targets set for the Mayors' Action Challenge for Children and Families. Through the challenge, more than 100 mayors have committed to establish measurable goals to ensure that every child has opportunities to learn and grow, a safe neighborhood to call home, a healthy lifestyle and environment and a financially fit family in which to thrive.

Even when they have no direct authority over local public schools, mayors and other municipal leaders can forge creative partnerships that make a powerful impact on student achievement.

Since 2002, the mayors of St. Petersburg, Fla., have assisted Pinellas County Schools in achieving remarkable progress through a combination of strategies that are part of the innovative Mayor's Mentors & More initiative. Coordinated under a business-oriented framework that both engages corporate partners and establishes various incentives and accountability measures for student achievement, these strategies include:
  • Recruiting and training mentors from the city, corporations and the community;
  • Providing college scholarships to students from low-income families;
  • Attracting high-quality teachers and rewarding school improvement;
  • Connecting students with work experience through city internships; and
  • Building relationships between school administrators and local agencies to streamline "wraparound services" that support student learning.
Mayor's Mentors & More began under the leadership of former Mayor Rick Baker who, having previously served as chairman of the local chamber of commerce, was well positioned to broker partnerships among the city, schools and businesses. As a participant in the Mayors' Action Challenge for Children and Families, current Mayor Bill Foster has not only sustained the city's leadership role in education but has actively pursued areas for continued improvement and committed to specific benchmarks despite the city's challenging economic circumstances.

"Education is at the center of jobs and business creation, public safety and quality of life, and it takes many dedicated partners to make a difference," said Mayor Foster.

Mentors & Scholarships

Over the past eight years, the city has partnered with the school district to recruit and train a cumulative total of nearly 1,300 mentors from 100 corporate partners and the broader community. In addition to supplying mentors, corporate partners, which are each paired with one of the city's 44 public schools, are a source of volunteers, office equipment donations, internships, fundraising support and assistance with strategic planning.

The city offers municipal employees one hour of paid leave time and travel time per week to mentor children in public schools. A mayoral "Cabinet Challenge" instigates a friendly competition among city departments to see which one can provide the most mentors.

Mayors Baker and Foster have also raised private funds to offer more than 1,000 Doorways Scholarships to help students attend public universities and colleges in Florida. Private donations of $2,400 are matched by $2,400 from the Pinellas Education Foundation and $4,800 from the state of Florida. Mayor Foster has pledged to raise funds for 100 new scholarships each year and ensure that nearly every recipient has a mentor.

Public school students in sixth grade who receive free and reduced-price lunch are selected for these pre-paid scholarships, and must attend school regularly, maintain a high academic standard, complete homework and study for tests and remain crime and drug free in order to receive the scholarships upon graduation. Students who struggle with the academic or behavioral requirements of the program are assigned an advocate who meets regularly with the student, parent or guardian and school staff and offers access to resources that will help the student stay on track.

The scholarship program has been a tremendous success. The cohort of high school students who were selected to receive Doorways Scholarships six years ago had a graduation rate of 94 percent in 2010, considerably higher than the state average, which was 76 percent in 2009 and 75 percent the previous year. Overall, graduation rates in the six high schools in the Mayor's Mentors & More program have climbed from 64 percent in 2001 to 81 percent in 2009. Last January, the city and school district hosted a community-wide summit with support from America's Promise Alliance to develop an action plan for increasing graduation rates by two percentage points per year over the next five years.

Teacher Recruitment & School Performance

Just as the Doorways Scholarship program provides incentives and promotes accountability for student achievement, several other components of Mayor's Mentors & More encourage teacher quality and school improvement. To recruit and retain high-quality teachers, the A+ Housing Initiative offers $20,000 interest-free loans to help teachers buy a home in St. Petersburg, with 10 percent of the loan forgiven for each year the teacher stays in the home and works in a city school.

Public schools in Florida receive a letter grade of A through F from the state department of education based on their students' performance on the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test. The Mayor's Top Apple Award provides recognition and bonuses to principals and assistant principals whose schools earn an A or improve their letter grade. The proportion of A and B schools in St. Petersburg has jumped from 26 percent of the total number of schools in 2001 to 63 percent in 2009. Mayor Foster has joined the Pinellas County Schools superintendent and the Juvenile Welfare Board to implement a "children's zone" initiative centered around Fairmount Elementary, one of the local schools receiving a failing grade last year.

Putting his own stamp on Mayor's Mentors & More, Mayor Foster has recently expanded the initiative by launching a program providing high school and college students with internships in city departments, such as planning and economic development, parks and recreation, code compliance and the Office on Aging.

Details: Mayor's Mentors & More is one of 32 innovations highlighted in NLC's October 2009 report on The State of City Leadership for Children and Families. To download the report, visit www.nlc.org/iyef. To learn more about the Mayors' Action Challenge, visit www.mayorsforkids.org.