Schools' choice is clear: find a wa
By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- Lakewood Elementary School's wish list for its new "Center for Wellness and Environmental Studies" is long and expensive: a pond, kid-size exercise equipment, a fitness trail circling the campus, heart monitors, aquariums and science-themed song books.
"Once their bodies feel good, they feel good about themselves," said program coordinator Raquel Russo. "The main thing is to empower our students to make healthy lifestyle choices."
Around Pinellas County, schools are dreaming big dreams.
School choice arrives officially in 2003, but parents will start deciding this fall where to send their children. That means schools are already jockeying to draw students.
They will entice families by offering what the school around the corner doesn't: unique classes, specially trained teachers, community support, fancy technology.
If they can find the money.
Even if the county's budget weren't tight and getting tighter, no money was set aside to help schools develop and implement special programs. Schools were told to find a way.
"How are we going to do these great things we want to do without the benefit of a budget?" Lakewood principal Ray Tampa asked. "Is it a challenge? By all means, yes."
Tampa hopes to buy much of what the school needs with $329,000 in leftover construction money. Still, he knows Lakewood won't have all it wants, which would require $500,000 to $750,000.
Lakewood's location makes the dollar shortage especially worrisome. Within 5 miles of Lakewood's new campus are two popular fundamental programs and three established magnet schools. Three more schools -- Gulfport, Maximo and Campbell Park -- share a three-year, $6-million grant to begin one-of-a-kind programs.
"I have fretted about that," Tampa said. "Lakewood does have some tough issues to overcome, but we're confident we can do it."
Lakewood typically has trouble meeting court-ordered ratios, with white families trying to avoid long bus rides to the southeastern corner of St. Petersburg. The principal wanted to offer a program so different that the commute to 4151 Sixth St. S would be worth it.
Beginning in 2003, the wellness and environmental studies theme will permeate all lessons.
In math, students will analyze nutrition labels on food. In science, they will collect data about the development of frogs. In language arts, they will read about grasshoppers, pollution and the dangers of smoking.
Lakewood dreams of a gym with treadmills and bicycles that students, staff and parents can use. The envisioned fitness trail would allow students to calculate their pulse or read about nearby plants. Russo also imagines a greenhouse.
Some schools aren't making such dramatic program changes. Many will stick with what they already do -- not just because it's free but because they think they're doing enough now to lure families.
Sunset Hills Elementary in Tarpon Springs, for example, will sell its tradition of parental involvement, community support and strong academics. Walsingham Elementary in Largo, drawing on its large population of foreign students, will focus on global studies. Tarpon Springs Middle School will market its technology-infused curriculum.
"We're not going to venture out and try too many things if we can't support it," said Tarpon Springs Middle principal Keith Davis.
Superintendent Howard Hinesley said he never considered setting aside money to support attractor programs. He worried that schools would come to depend on money that could disappear.
Schools need to be creative and tap local resources and grant opportunities, he said, adding that the district is available to help. Hinesley himself put Campbell Park Elementary in touch with the University of South Florida for its marine science program.
"There are ways to make those ideas become a reality without costing a lot of money," he said. "Where it does cost money, there are partners."
Skycrest Elementary School in Clearwater has tapped such resources.
In 1996, when Hinesley first mentioned preparing special programs for choice, Skycrest decided to pursue an arts and music focus. It has slowly taken shape through grant money. A $100,000 grant funded curriculum development. Last year, a $25,000 grant paid for new stringed instruments. Other grants have funded kiln repairs and helped the school open a photography darkroom.
Azalea Middle School will team with Lakewood to offer a wellness and environmental studies theme. Principal Joann Andrews has her volunteer coordinator seeking community partners and her teachers writing grant applications. That's on top of working with Lakewood, developing a new curriculum and marketing the ideas to parents.
"It's an extra task that we have to do," Andrews said.
Russo, Lakewood's attractor coordinator, has not sought money from community groups or written grants -- yet. She has received promises of support.
Area hospitals, such as All Children's and St. Anthony's, can provide activity books and speakers to talk about the spread of germs and proper hand-washing.
Boyd Hill Nature Park will open its grounds for field trips. Students in the medical magnet program at Boca Ciega High School can act as mentors. The Southwest Florida Water Management District will teach about water conservation.
The program at Lakewood won't start in full until 2003, but Russo is bringing in guest teachers so she knows which ones grab students' attention.
Already, the lessons are hitting home.
Melissa Fowler, a fifth-grader, loves junk food. But after a speech about healthy eating, she lamented to her mom: "I wish they hadn't told me all that stuff so now I have to watch what I eat!"
Melissa, 11, has studied the nutrition content of Lunchables and learned "this isn't good for me." She is turning off cartoons to do chores in the sunshine. On a recent beach trip, she told her mom to leave the potato chips at home.
She asked for grapes instead.
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