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Students have their say on election issues

Although they cite problems with class size and standardized testing, teacher quality is the top concern for many.

By JOHN PETRIMOULX
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 27, 2002


photo
[Times photo: Fraser Hale]
Sickles High student Tyler Bursey, foreground, discusses a lesson question in his 12-grade AP English class Wednesday while teacher Maxine Wood listens.
Through all the school reform debates, stump speeches, political ads and news stories spawned by the current election season, students' voices are seldom heard.

The opinions of politicians, teachers, administrators and parents about how to improve our schools are aired frequently. But what about students, for whom the schools exist in the first place?

For a younger perspective, we went to three high schools served by the North of Tampa section and spoke to students in economics, philosophy, government and history classes. Most are seniors enrolled in honors and advanced placement classes.

Overall, they generally agreed that there is room for school improvement. But they don't see a need for radical change. Their biggest concerns? Standardized testing and teachers.

"There's too much focus on FCAT," said Sonja Cotton, a senior at Alonso High School.

Her opinion about the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test reflects an oft-expressed view that preparing for and taking the FCAT and other standardized tests detract from the business of real learning.

"The formula we learned for the writing part of the test was too limiting," Cotton said, adding that it has little use beyond the test. "It wasn't until English class last year that I really learned different styles of writing."

Other students say time spent on FCAT preparation means less time for honors and advanced placement course work and other priorities.

Many students say the FCAT is easy to pass. They don't see how it helps them personally. They complain that standardized tests simply amount to memorizing information they quickly forget afterward.

"We take FCAT, PSAT, SAT, ACT, CPT," said Charmaine Martin, a senior at Wharton High School. "There are too many tests, period."

Students say the promise of school rewards for good FCAT scores doesn't motivate them, only school officials, who place a heavy emphasis on test preparation and test grades because a school's reputation and funding are at stake.

Students ridicule using one test to measure their school, saying the reward system is upside down.

"The money should go to schools that need it," Alonso junior Katt Notter said, referring to schools that do poorly on the FCAT and need to improve.

Aware of tight budgets, students see other uses for the money as well.

"Why don't we use the money from FCAT to pay teachers?" Alonso junior Kevin Reilly asked. Students say it would be one way of improving teacher quality, another big concern for them. Teacher quality varies a lot, so teachers should be evaluated to determine who's doing a good job and who isn't, they say.

Sean Tyrka, a senior at Chamberlain High School, wants an evaluation process in which students can put in requests for meetings with teachers and mediators to resolve problems. He sees the process as a way to grade teachers and spot problem teachers.

"The school can keep track of how many students come in to fill out forms on teachers," he said.

What do students most want from their teachers? High expectations, challenging classes and abundant encouragement top the list.

"Schools should feel welcoming and comforting," said Wharton senior Angela Isaacs, who added that she wishes teachers focused more on individual students, their goals and problems.

On other school improvement issues debated this election season, Wharton senior Matt Smith likes the governor's plan for smaller class sizes and more teachers but doubts he can raise the money to pay for the initiatives.

He also cites the problem of comparatively low teacher pay: "My (a teacher) aunt is paid more in Georgia." With 39 students seated at all available desks and even around a table wedged in one corner, Isaacs' classmates say they favor class size limits, too. But like Tyrka's classmates, who point out their dingy portable classroom, they complain about chronic shortages of textbooks and worry that problems will get worse if class sizes get smaller.

In the end, though, students say testing, class size and materials are not as important to them as what goes on in the classroom.

Said Chamberlain senior Jessenia Rojas: "Teachers are the biggest thing that makes a difference in how we do."

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