Trying to get out




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Years of neglect transformed five elementary schools in south St. Petersburg into some of the worst in Florida. Families who can’t afford to move are trapped there amid violence and diminished expectations.

1 Why they want to get out

Every family has its own story, but most want the same thing: To flee the failing schools any way they can. Here are three examples from the Tampa Bay Times’ yearlong investigation Failure Factories.

Penniless and unable to move, Candice Billingsley had to send her daughter Allana to Melrose, the worst elementary school in Florida. She couldn’t afford to send her anywhere else.


Ermarie Otero moved to south St. Petersburg for the sole purpose of getting treatment for her younger son, Derek, whose brain was damaged in a car crash 8 years ago.

She found an apartment close to the hospital because she had no car.

Her older son, Ivan, enrolled at Campbell Park, the 15th worst school in Florida.

A single, working mother, Lawanda Bodden had no choice but to send her son Cayton to Fairmount Park, the second-worst school in Florida.

Bullies at the school tormented Cayton. His grades slipped. Lawanda felt like she was failing him as a mother.


2 How they’re trying to get out

As desperation set in, each family was forced to find its own way.

Bullies at Melrose tortured Allana about her weight, her clothes and how she wore her hair.


After that, Candice was more determined than ever to get her family out. She applied for subsidized housing outside of St. Petersburg and kept her fingers crossed.

Ivan, too, was getting bullied. But his mother took comfort that his brother was getting regular treatments. Then something happened that would shatter any sense of calm for her.

Ivan was eating lunch in the cafeteria when a classmate attacked him. He came home bruised and swollen.


Cayton made it through the fourth grade at Fairmount Park and begged his mother not to send him back. Lawanda entered him into the school district’s lottery for magnets and special programs.

She promised Cayton she would get him out of Fairmount Park if she could.

3 How they fared

One family’s prayers were answered. For the others, life is still far from perfect.

Months after she applied for subsidized housing, Candice landed a house in Largo.

The new neighborhood meant Allana could go to C-rated Ridgecrest, far from her bullies at Melrose.


After Ivan got hurt at school, Ermarie and her husband faced an unthinkable choice: Remain in south St. Petersburg, where their older son was at risk, or move farther north, where their younger son would get less regular treatment.

They chose to keep Ivan safe. They borrowed money and moved to a trailer in Largo.


Lawanda waited anxiously to learn where Cayton would go to school this year.


At the end of the summer, she heard back from the school district.

Cayton didn’t get in to any of the county’s other schools. He’s still at Fairmount Park today.

His story is just the beginning.

A Tampa Bay Times investigation

Additional production by Eli Murray.