Pinellas County school board members decline request for new reading curriculum, called out for accepting status quo

03/20/12 Janelle Irwin
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Last night, 3,000 members of churches and other religious institutions in Pinellas County put some elected officials in the hot seat. Committees from the group Faith and Action for Strength Together forced yes or no answers about proposed policies from school board members, St. Pete City Council members, and the Pinellas County Sheriff. Only one proposal was declined. Several school board members rejected a program that Joe Magri, co-chair of FAST’s education committee, said has been designed to cater to children with poor vocabulary.

“They’re wedded to a reading program which in the poorer schools has been failing. It’s been there for four years and it’s been a failing program and they’re sticking with it doggedly. They’re not changing. Whereas, in a number of cities, they’ve used a program called DI. In fact, it is a program which, in terms of scientific research and testing, is unprecedented.”

DI stands for direct instruction. It’s a rigorous reading program that involves a series of consistent reinforcing lessons. It also requires additional training for teachers. The National Institute for Direct Instruction, or NIFDI, is a non-profit that helps schools integrate the program into their curriculum. According to FAST’s education committee, to bring them into 20 schools would cost between 75 and 100 thousand dollars. But Montez Shelby, whose grandson was held back twice, thinks that’s an investment worth making.

“My grandson was embarrassed because he had become larger than his classmates. He seemed even larger because they were younger. We couldn’t sit around and watch him go through that again. My daughter couldn’t afford to send him to a private school, but my husband and I continued to encourage her and together we sent him to a private school. There, a lot of initial work, he learned to read on grade level. He is not 15-years-old and he is earning A’s and B’s.

Four of the seven school board members attended. They sat awkwardly on stage as they were accused of supporting a failing status quo. Glen Gilzean was questioned first by Reverend Robert Ward on the issue because the targeted schools fall mostly in his district.

“I would love to support the organization, but I don’t know it and that’s not effective leadership for me to say yes to an organization that I have not met yet. So, I would say yes if you give them the opportunity to come meet me.”

“We will give them the opportunity.”

“I also would love to see how we can implement this in pre-school because I really believe we have to get them early.”

“So, you will support bringing NIFDI in as we certainly indicated in our question, to implement DI in one, at least one public school on the list for free?”

“As long as I have an opportunity to sit down and understand what the model is, I am open minded to it as long as we go forward with pre-school as well. So, yes.”

Another school board member, Janet Clark, said she would support the program in one school – something that NIFDI has promised to do for free as a pilot – but she doubted that would receive enough support from other board members to pass. Robin Wikle denied it altogether and school board veteran Linda Lerner said she only supports Direct Instruction as a supplemental curriculum rather than FAST’s proposed core program.

“I will not yield to pressure. My leadership is, I make decisions based on all the information. You have not heard all the information.”

Even though FAST members were disappointed in the failure to gain support of their educational initiative, their other proposals were better received. Manuel Sykes, co-chair of FAST’s jobs committee, proposed a program to St. Pete City Council members that would create a city-wide hiring ordinance.

“We believe that our tax dollars should afford tax payers the opportunity to benefit from those jobs. So, the priority hiring ordinance would give us three things. One, there would be a benchmark percentage for hiring within St. Petersburg and Pinellas County. Secondly, it would have a provision for hiring people that are hard to hire including ex-felons. Thirdly, it would give a certain dollar amount as a threshold to be included in that hiring ordinance.”

All three of the council members at the event – Charlie Gerdes, Karl Nurse and Jeff Danner – agreed to the program. And Sykes said that support was echoed in emails from other council members who weren’t there. If they stick to that promise, people like Earnest Benton could find themselves finally finding employment. Benton was arrested for using someone else’s license when being stopped by a police officer.

“I was caught and charged with false statement and sentenced to three months incarceration and one year of probation. Since then, I’ve gone back to school and received a certification to work in the field of air conditioning and heating. Four times I’ve interviewed for jobs and told I had great credentials and would probably be hired. Each time I was told that human resources rejected my hire because I had misdemeanors on my record.”

And another proposal drafted by the drugs and crime committee could churn out people who would benefit from that ordinance. They asked Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri to re-introduce a rehabilitative program for incarcerated people. It’s a program the county once had called Smart Choices. Adrienne Lee graduated from the program in 2010 before it was cut from the budget. She said it changed her life.

“I don’t have a job right now, but I am going to school to be a counselor to help other addicts find their way back – get their lives back.”

But Austin Peterson, a committee member who researched the program, said cost shouldn’t be an issue.

“By reducing recidivism in the county jail, it saves at least a half a million dollars which more than covers the estimated cost of $250,000. $250,000 is less than three tenths, .3% of the Sheriff’s budget.”

Prior to hearing from the Sheriff, speakers talked about how reluctant Gualtieri had been to bring Smart Choices back. To a barrage of cheers though, he gave a firm ‘yes’ when asked if he would support it, but followed that up with an explanation.

“The only reason why it’s doable is because of the hard work we’ve put into getting it down. Smart Choices was $750,000. Because of an innovative way of being able to implement this and out sourcing it to West Care and Operation Par and finding the housing units, we’re going to get it down so the cost is about $250,000 as Marti knows. We’re working hard on this and that’s why it takes time to do it. There is no finer way of accomplishing public safety than through successful re-entry because successful re-entry means people are not re-offending. They’re not committing those burglaries and those thefts and those batteries and it is public safety at its finest.”

FAST has members from 38 different churches, synagogues and mosques. During the spring and summer months, leaders of the faith-based group reach out to new congregations as part of their Rethinking Justice Workshop. To learn more call 727-823-9197.

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I taught DI for two years in Ohio. It is a scripted by the book, read, rote and memory program drill system that emphasizes pronunciation over any type of deep understanding of the material being read. Yes, certain groups of children benefited in the endless drone of drill, but they never became inspired by the literature. The stories are poorly written with very odd and strange characters scattered throughout doing random things. There is zero humor or any moments of clarity for the characters as the plots are constructed by people that really have no idea how to write a story. There is NO teaching of the elements of fiction, nor of deeper understanding of the teaching of strategies for nonfiction reading. I am proud that our school board pushed back against this program.