Religious group demands help for impoverished Pinellas County residents

03/13/13 Janelle Irwin
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More than 3,000 faith-driven residents are demanding help for Pinellas County’s poor. During an action at downtown St. Pete’s Tropicana Field last night, the group Faith and Action for Strength Together, or FAST, asked elected officials to implement programs that would improve healthcare, housing, jobs and schools. Glad McCurtain is a member of FAST’s education committee.

“We know that if a child cannot read at grade level by the third grade, there is a huge likelihood that the child will dropout before graduation and if a child does not graduate, there is a higher probability that child will end up in prison. We need to stop this school to prison pipeline.”

FAST identified dozens of Pinellas County Schools where many third grade students are failing reading assessments. Most of them are schools with high percentages of students from low income families.

“A former superintendent looking at the list of those schools said, ‘of course these are the schools that are failing.’ What do you mean of course? She considered it normal for student who live in high poverty – high minority schools not to be doing well. This under the surface discrimination is not right.”

They want Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Michael Grego to implement a rigorous reading program called direct instruction into at least one failing school. The National Institute for Direct Instruction has said it will implement the program in one school for free. Mary Walker is the grandmother of a student who was struggling with reading at Lakewood Elementary where only 23% of third graders were reading at or above grade level. She supports the direct instruction because it could eventually streamline the way kids are taught to read.

“About ten weeks into the school year, my grand daughter was accepted into a magnet program where she could receive a different curriculum – a more structured one. We shouldn’t have to worry about moving our children from school to school because we should feel confident that all our schools are performing well and teaching our kids how to read.”

But FAST members, headed by Reverend Robert Ward, were enraged that the Superintendent sent area superintendent Barbara Hires in his place.

“I ask you tonight, are you able to make and to speak on behalf of the Superintendent and make commits on behalf of him?”

“Due to the reference of the word ‘direct instruction as a core curriculum’ I respectfully have to say, not at this time.”

A few boos erupted from the audience gathered in the outfield where the Tampa Bay Rays play. Last year the group asked some school board members if they would support direct instruction, but they didn’t. This year, school board members Linda Lerner and Renee Flowers said they would back the Superintendent if he decided to implement it. Ward said Superintendent Grego didn’t attend because he was tied up in a meeting with parents.

“We have right here tonight, the largest countywide gathering in the history of Pinellas County. The problem will not go away so we will not either.”

He called on the thousands of supporters to instead go directly to the Superintendent at the April 23 school board meeting. They respond with thunderous applause that echoed through the stands in the giant baseball stadium. FAST members also asked St. Pete City Council Chair Karl Nurse and Mayor Bill Foster if they would support and expedite a local hiring ordinance that would encourage contractors hired by the city to employ rehabilitated ex-felons. Nurse said he is already working on it.

“Not only do we have the Pier and the new police headquarters, we also have $40 million worth of sewer treatment construction coming up. So, it’s the biggest construction we’ve ever had at one time so that’s why it’s critical that we finish it this spring.”

A similar version of that ordinance was put off by council members earlier this year. Mayor Foster had said in January that he would veto the measure if it had passed without changes because the board was warned the ordinance could come at a cost to the city. But Foster told FAST members that he would now support a hiring ordinance that included provision for people with criminal records.

“We will move this ordinance forward to incentivize all of these contractors that are receiving taxpayer dollars and as Council member chair said, we have a lot of projects happening with your money.”

Four Pinellas County Commissioners also said they would support and move a measure to spend $15 million of Penny for Pinellas funds on affordable housing over the next 3 years. Representatives for the Pinellas County Health Department and Community Health Centers agreed to support expanded dental care for uninsured people.

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