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Constructing a program on math

Douglas Jamerson will borrow ideas from a Houston school that was named the country's top magnet school.

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 23, 2002

Douglas Jamerson will borrow ideas from a Houston school that was named the country's top magnet school.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Kiwanis McCallister thought her school choice decision was made.

She had weighed the options available to her under the district's new student assignment plan for 2003 and decided her 9-year-old son Kristopher would remain at Fuguitt Elementary for fifth grade. She returned her declaration of intent in mid September.

Then she attended discovery nights at two new St. Petersburg elementary schools and everything changed -- for Kristopher and possibly for her, too.

Douglas Jamerson and James B. Sanderlin elementary schools impressed her so much that she requested another declaration of intent. The schools are now her top choices for Kristopher.

They also top the list of schools where McCallister wants to work. The Fuguitt Elementary fourth-grade teacher plans to be first in line when the new schools begin taking applications next month.

She is especially interested in Jamerson. The school at 1200 37th St. S will have a math and engineering focus when it opens in August. Besides being closer to her St. Petersburg home, she thinks it will challenge Kristopher, who she says already thinks like an engineer.

"He's always asking 'Why?' He likes taking things apart and putting them back together. I think he's destroying things, but he's learning," she said.

McCallister is attracted to the school as a teacher because of the hands-on approach it will take toward educating children. Classroom instruction will be balanced with laboratory activities so students can actively participate in learning. A mathematics curriculum developed by the National Science Foundation will encourage students to develop skills they can apply to engineering design and construction. All teachers will either be nationally board certified or working toward certification, a rigorous performance-based assessment process that requires them to demonstrate their teaching methods and pass a test.

These ingredients will add up to a unique program that will apply mathematics to science, especially in the engineering field, said Robert Poth, Jamerson's new principal.

"Our goal is to provide an environment where kids have an opportunity to take what they're learning and use it in a constructive way that teaches them to design and create, but that also gets them excited about learning," he said.

Many parents at the Oct. 14 discovery night, including McCallister, were intrigued by the concept, but wondered whether their children could handle the intense math and engineering focus. Poth, who is leaving Ridgecrest Elementary and Center for Gifted Studies to open Jamerson, assured them their children don't have to be "whiz kids" to succeed in the program.

"We welcome gifted students. We will take them beyond what you would dream they could do," he said. "But we're going to build a program that will allow all kids to succeed. They will be challenged to the point where they're excited about learning, but they're not going to be pushed beyond their capability."

High student achievement was uppermost in the minds of district administrators when they chose Jamerson's theme. They were looking for a program that would be attractive to parents and that would encourage children to meet -- and exceed -- district and state standards.

"I think the math and engineering aspect is a fantastic kind of draw," said Sandra Titsworth, Pinellas supervisor for elementary mathematics. "A lot of times, people think engineering is building a bridge, but it affects our total quality of life. It really impacts all of us as human beings."

The administrators studied Raymond Academy, a public elementary school in Houston that became a math and engineering magnet six years ago. Named the top magnet school in the country in 2001 by Magnet Schools of America, Raymond is the feeder school for the Aldine Independent school district's intermediate and middle school engineering programs. Its 920 students are put on an early track for priority placement at the district's engineering high school.

"The kids love it because it's very hands-on," said Aldine magnet coordinator Diane Creekmore. "They're building things. They're taking field trips. Members of a retired engineering organization in the Houston area come in and work with them."

The children's enthusiasm is reflected in their standardized test scores, Creekmore said. Math scores have risen considerably, and the district expects the students to be well prepared when science is added to the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test this year.

Poth plans to visit the Texas school to learn more about the program.

"We're going to be taking some of their success strategies and infusing them right off the bat. We're not going to reinvent wheels that are already rolling," he said. "We fully intend to have a program in mathematics and engineering and every subject the first day your child steps foot on the Jamerson campus."

Raising the bar for teachers will be instrumental in reaching that goal, Poth said.

"Board certification is rooted in the belief that the most important action our country can take to improve schools and student learning is to improve the quality of teachers. It's going to allow us to get the cream-of-the-crop teachers, the ones that have a real and true desire for continued learning throughout their careers," he said.

Another key ingredient will be community and professional partnerships. Poth has contacted the Florida Engineering Society and plans to approach the University of South Florida. He wants to start an after-school engineering club and would like to begin a chapter of the Youth Engineering Society to encourage students to pursue careers in engineering, science and technology.

But the school won't concentrate on math and engineering to the exclusion of other subjects, he said. He wants children to develop an appreciation for those disciplines, but his goal is to stimulate their interest in learning across the board.

"A child who leaves Jamerson is one who will have an appreciation and a strong knowledge base in math and science and can apply it in an exciting way," he said. "But he or she will also come out of the school with a strong reading and language arts background."

Before any of that can happen, Poth has to find teachers and students.

The biggest challenge in hiring a staff, he said, will be choosing from among the high-caliber teachers who have already expressed an interest in coming to the school. He will hire his core group in November so the teachers can begin training and building a team.

He expects many children will come from the neighborhood, which is where he is concentrating his recruitment efforts. Based on the discovery night turnout, he predicts the school also will attract private school students and those who did not make the magnet lottery.

Regardless of where they come from or whether or not the school reaches its capacity in the first year, the most important thing, Poth said, is for teachers, parents and children to feel they are part of Jamerson Elementary.

"I want them to be involved in the vision of the school. It's not my school, it's our school," he said. "What better opportunity could we have to create a school from the ground up?"

* * *

Parents who want to learn more about Douglas Jamerson Elementary School are invited to a second discovery night at the school at 7 p.m. on Nov. 12. School tours will be conducted at 10:30 a.m. Oct. 31, 1 p.m. Nov. 14, 2 p.m. Nov. 19, and 10:30 a.m. Dec. 4 and Dec. 10.

Robert Poth can be reached at 588-3580.

-- Editor's note: This is the second of three Wednesdays that Top of the Class will focus on three new schools that will open in St. Petersburg next school year. This week, we report on plans for Douglas Jamerson Elementary.

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