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Survey holds fate of micro society

A local school says the program teaches students real-life skills. Some parents say it's a waste of time.

By BARBARA BEHRENDT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 24, 2002


INVERNESS -- When parents at Inverness Primary School attended an open house last summer, they learned about a new set of opportunities for their children.

They could learn French, work at the school's new postal station or write for a school publication. The opportunities were part of a "micro society" program that Inverness Primary started in the fall.

Principal Terry Charles supported the program because she said it provides handson experiences that reinforce academic concepts and help children develop skills they will need in their lives and careers.

Charles also noted that she would discontinue the micro society if, by April, a survey failed to show overwhelming support from staff, students and parents.

Some parents aren't waiting for April. They already know they don't support the program.

The are unhappy that they were not told more about the program sooner. They also say the April survey is too late to assess support for the micro society.

They say it is an unproven educational model that takes away valuable time from real academic subjects. Also, the school ceases to be a safe haven and exposes children to court systems and student police officers.

Critics further question whether the programs offered in the micro society -- known as IPSville USA: The Job Quest -- are tied to the state's educational standards and worry that, without a coordinator or an assessment system, the program has no real educational objectives.

"The play aspect of it or the fun aspect of it are overshadowing the most important aspects of school," said parent Sophia Diaz-Fonseca. "I support higher-order thinking skills and I don't mind trying something new, but children have to be able to read and write."

"The process of not being willing to try new things I simply don't understand," Charles said. "The whole concept is applying skills to the real world. Isn't that the basis of the Sunshine State Standards and the FCAT?"

At 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the school, Inverness Primary officials will offer an opportunity for parents to learn more about the program and ask questions. The session will be part of the school's regular Reading Night activities.

The IPSville program, which students participate in for an hour each Tuesday and Thursday, is modeled after a full-blown micro society at the Chocachatti Elementary School in Brooksville.

Inverness Primary staff visited the Hernando County school several times to get ideas and learn how the program has worked there.

But Diaz-Fonseca said the Chocachatti program is based at a magnet school. Parents choose to send their children there. Inverness Primary is populated based on the Inverness attendance zone.

Plus, Chocachatti has a coordinator who oversees the micro society and ensures that its programs are tied to the state's Sunshine State Standards. The Hernando school also has strong support from parents, something lost here because parents were not told early enough about the micro society, Diaz-Fonseca argued.

She also raised a safety issue, since students involved in their school-based "jobs" might be out in the hallways or between buildings if an emergency took place.

Since Diaz-Fonseca raised that issue, Charles changed the program to better safeguard children.

Also a literacy volunteer at IPS, Diaz-Fonseca said the school needs to be working in reading and writing. Those have been the areas where students have shown weaknesses when they have taken the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT.

"This (micro society) is not fully integrated with the curriculum," Diaz-Fonseca said. "We kept hearing things like, "We want to make school fun again' . . . but the kids already love the school."

She also argued national studies have shown mixed results from the program, and that its highest marks were for curtailing discipline problems and lowering absenteeism -- things that are not major issues at Inverness Primary.

In recent years, the percentage of students from lower-income families has grown at the school. For Diaz-Fonseca, that points out another problem with the pilot program: Some IPS students already know about police and courts because of incidents within their own families. They didn't need to have hall monitors fining them for running or forgetting school work.

"School is supposed to be a safe haven to get away from some of the things that they see in their lives every day," she said.

Parent Diana McIntosh said that, if the school has the opportunity to devote two uninterrupted hours a week to something educational, then "dedicate it to math. Dedicate it to reading. Dedicate it to something worthwhile."

She said she was concerned about the upcoming survey because she expected the school's efforts to talk up the program and the students' love of something other than old-fashioned classes would sway the results.

Charles said the school's credit union teaches about math. The student government can teach communications.

"The children love it. It's highly motivational," Charles said.

She acknowledges involving parents earlier might have solved some concerns, but since they have raised questions, Charles has made changes in the program and plans closer monitoring and direct ties between the curriculum and state standards.

Several teachers oppose the idea, but Charles said IPSville only takes away from "flash cards and worksheets."

"The two points that have really hurt me and hurt my heart are why the hysteria? Why the nontrust?" she said. "It's sad this little town wants to stay backwards."

Unless 80 percent of the students, staff and parents want the program to continue when they fill out their surveys in April, Charles said the program will end.

"The bottom line is that we're going to have a survey and we're going to have a vote," she said.

In Hernando County, the Chocachatti school has the highest FCAT scores in the district and a waiting list so long that a lottery must decide which students get to attend.

"The public response by our parents and our students has been overwhelming," said Jim Malcolm, a 10-year member of the Hernando County School Board about the Chocachatti program. The program has been expanded to a middle school and is slated to move into the high school level when the county's new vocational and technical high school opens in 2003.

While earlier parent involvement might have helped the process, he said he doesn't buy into the other concerns raised by Inverness parents.

"When they run their own business or they run their own bank . . . they're learning math. That's all math. But it's not only math, it's life skills," he said. He invited parents who have concerns to visit Chocachatti and he even offered to come to Inverness to tell people about the Hernando program if they wanted more details.

"It doesn't mean you've abandoned the traditional curriculum. It's being enhanced because you see what you learned in that notebook being put into something in the real world," Malcolm said. "We've got a good thing going and I would wish it on anybody."

-- Times Staff Writer Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or 564-3621.

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