Pinellas schools consider swapping fundamental, Montessori programs
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11/09/10 Kate Bradshaw
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The board.


photo by Kate Bradshaw, WMNF

It’s no secret that many public schools in Florida are disappointing at best. The Pinellas County School Board is trying to makes some tweaks to the system to boost results, but one of these changes has two South Pinellas communities up in arms. Deputy Superintendent Jim Madden says the draft of the county’s Student Achievement Proposal takes a long view of student success.

"We're trying to look at our district from say, like the 30,000 foot level, and saying 'how are we structured school-wise, program-wise', and those kinds of things and then based upon that information; what kinds of things do we need to offer as we move forward so that we don't have to keep changing our way of doing things in terms of assigning students to schools."

But today the Board approved several changes to that plan, which would go into effect in the 2011-2012 academic year. These changes effect things like the application process, magnet program structure, and fundamental programs. And it was one proposed change to the county’s fundamental schools in particular that caused today’s board meeting to hit a snag. That is the potential swapping of the fundamental program now housed at South St. Pete’s Lakewood Elementary with a Montessori program at Gulfport Elementary. Madden says the move would address increased demand for limited fundamental seats.

"But at the elementary level there are still a number of students out there who's parents want a fundamental school. Because we weren't able to offer it to the extent that we'd like to we had hundreds of parents not enroll in our system. They're out there somewhere else, either being home-schooled or private-schooled or some other version."

It could also bring up Gulfport Elementary’s D-grade. Madden says the Montessori program, meanwhile, could benefit from relocating to Lakewood.

"There's a demand out there for that program too, but not in it's current setting. So, if we took that program and moved it to a facility that was better suited for the size of the program which is about 300 and some kids, which is Lakeview fundamental facility. Then move the Lakeview program to Gulfport, we've now hit a win-win."

The Pinellas County Schools Web site defines a fundamental school as a family-oriented school with increased parental involvement, and an emphasis on discipline. Most parents are required to drive fundamental students to school. Students who, for parental reasons or otherwise, can’t or won’t comply get kicked out. Today, Lakeview parent Kurt Miller says one of his major concerns about the move is the fate of Gulfport Elementary students who don’t make the cut.

"Fundamental schools are not designed for every family's needs. They are specialty schools that are designed for families that are able to commit to the rigorous fundamental guidelines. Guidelines that require intense parental involvement at every level everyday. There is so much homework and reading and it has to get done everyday to keep up with the curriculum. Not every family can support it and you already know this."

More than 80 percent of Gulfport Elementary students reportedly participate in free and reduced lunch programs. Lakeview PTA Treasurer Heidi Grew says the program swap wouldn’t address the real cause of Gulfport Elementary’s D-grade.

"The idea that forcibly inserting a fundamental program into the Gulfport community will improve the outcome for students completely overlooks the cause of problems. With over 45 per cent of ... student population living in economically challenging conditions the underlying structures of Gulfport Elementary reside in poverty. And until this board focuses on the causes and effects of poverty on education, proposals like this one are no better than a doctor prescribing aspirin for cancer."

But Gulfport Elementary parents say they want their kids to benefit from a fundamental program. Janelle Melicci, a board member of that school’s PTA, says the board should look into turning Gulfport into a fundamental school and leaving Lakewood in place.

"There are changes that could be made to the proposal that would better suit everyone involved. We can accommodate Lakeview parents, we can accommodate Montessori parents, and we can accommodate many families that want to be a part of the fundamental program. I believe the best way to accomplish that is to leave the Montessori program right where it is and make the rest of the program a fundamental program."

Many members of the public, as well as a few board members, seemed to like the idea. The problem with that, Deputy Superintendent Madden says, is that Gulfport Elementary’s Montessori Program will still be a school within a school – something the board wants to discourage at low grade levels.

"What we're trying to accomplish is dealing with that school within a school issue, also, we couldn't accomplish by keeping it there and converting the whole school to just a fundamental school. You could, but it's not as clean. The school within a school is a lot easier concept at the high school level then it is at the elementary level."

Gulfport Elementary parent Jennifer Salmon, who is also a member of the Gulfport City Council, says, why not move the Montessori program to a new facility?

"Montessori really wants it's own program, the teachers want it's own program. As we were driving here actually I was driving with another member of the PTA, we went by Tyrone, right there at Tyrone and 66th Street, and they had shut that one down in just a recent year or two and that would be a great location because that actually would serve....well, why does the school board own property if it's not being used? Are they going to sell it?"

The board discussed several options, before approving the first reading of the achievement proposal. The board will take up the issue next week at a workshop, the same day two newly-elected board members get sworn in. The document’s a second and final reading takes place December 7.

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