A fundamental need
By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
Parents in south Pinellas County who want their middle school children in a structured environment with a back-to-basics approach can take heart.
They still have a chance to apply -- and a good chance of gaining a seat -- at Thurgood Marshall, a fundamental middle school scheduled to open in 2003.
The deadline for countywide fundamental schools was Oct. 15, but parents can apply to Thurgood Marshall until Dec. 13, the closing date for "choice" schools under the district's new attendance plan.
Why? Because rather than being a countywide fundamental, the school at 2130 40th St. S is an Attendance Area A school and will serve children who live between the Sunshine Skyway bridge and the Gandy Bridge.
The new facility will be a boon to the district, said Christine Lowry, supervisor of magnet and fundamental school programs.
"It was an answer to a request from the community that we offer more opportunities for fundamental schools," she said. "We have always had waiting lists at the two middle schools. It is a very popular theme."
Many children in traditional elementary programs have been denied fundamental middle school access because students at the district's five elementary fundamentals are guaranteed spots at Southside Fundamental in St. Petersburg and Coachman Fundamental in Clearwater, Lowry said. As interest in elementary fundamentals has increased, the need for an additional middle school fundamental became more critical, she explained.
Thurgood Marshall will have the traditional fundamental trademarks -- student self-responsibility, discipline, daily homework and parental involvement -- but it will offer something the others do not: a 4-by-4 block scheduling arrangement. The new principal, Joan Minnis, says it will accelerate learning and boost achievement.
The school year will consist of quarters instead of semesters. Class periods will be extended from 50 minutes to 82 minutes, which means students will take four longer classes instead of six shorter ones each day for one-quarter of the school year, hence creating a "4-by-4" arrangement. A course that would have taken an entire school year to complete can be finished in 18 weeks, and an elective such as band or chorus can be completed in nine weeks because students spend more time each day in each class.
Minnis finds the 4-by-4 plan attractive for both teachers and students. Longer class periods give teachers more time for uninterrupted, individualized instruction. And students have more options, a main factor in the district's decision to adopt alternative scheduling for Marshall.
"The middle school curriculum is so crunched," said Shelby Harvey, director of middle school instruction. "Most students want to take two electives in seventh grade and two in eighth grade. In order to do that, they usually have to go to a summer camp to get their PE and health credit. It's a source of frustration for parents who want their children to have their electives."
Minnis says 4-by-4 scheduling will ease the situation.
"Students could do band and chorus and a language without having to go to summer school," she said. "It gives them the best of both worlds. They don't have to sacrifice one for the other."
Minnis, who comes to Marshall after eight years as principal of Garrison-Jones Elementary in Palm Harbor, welcomes the challenge of opening a new school. She served as a principal at Curtis Fundamental and Campbell Park Elementary and was an assistant principal at Osceola Middle School when it opened in 1984.
The biggest challenge, she says, will be attracting students to a school that is still under construction. When filled, it will hold about 1,000 children.
Unlike the other two St. Petersburg schools being built as part of a settlement with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to end court-ordered busing for desegregation, Marshall will not be completed until the summer of 2003. Minnis meets biweekly at the school with the project director and architect to make sure things stay on schedule.
"It's like building a house," she said. "You have to order everything. When you go into a facility, you take for granted all those things."
She held a discovery night Monday at John Hopkins Middle School and is conducting "meet and greet" sessions at several elementary schools to make sure parents in Attendance Area A know about Thurgood Marshall. She expects most of her students to be new to fundamentals, because fifth-graders leaving fundamental elementary schools in the attendance area most likely will attend Southside Fundamental. To introduce parents to the more structured concept, she plans to offer informational sessions. She will stress the high level of parental involvement necessary for student success in the fundamental environment.
She also is compiling a list of expectations for teachers interested in coming to the school. Her core team members -- her "movers and shakers" -- will visit River Ridge Middle School in Pasco County and Sarasota Middle School to observe how they have implemented 4-by-4 scheduling. The core team also will assist in hiring the rest of the staff, Minnis said.
She already has received many inquiries from elementary and middle school teachers at traditional and fundamental schools and expects to have an impressive pool from which to draw when she begins interviewing.
"A lot of people like the energy of being in a new facility, the team-building and the training that's going to be going on," she said. "Our teachers like to be on the cutting edge, especially if it's going to help students achieve."
The potential for high student achievement will be instrumental in attracting students of all races to Thurgood Marshall, said Area 2 superintendent Lew Williams. He encourages parents of all Attendance Area A middle school students to consider Marshall because middle school fundamental success does not depend on elementary fundamental attendance.
"It's going to be one fantastic, beautiful facility," he said. "We're really excited about it. It's an opportunity for parents and students to be involved from the onset."
Thurgood Marshall Middle School principal Joan Minnis will hold "meet and greet" sessions for parents interested in the school from 7 to 8 p.m. Monday at 74th Street Elementary, 3801 74th St. N; Tuesday at Rio Vista Elementary, 8131 Macoma Drive NE; and Nov. 7 at Gulf Beaches Elementary, 8600 Boca Ciega Drive, St. Pete Beach. Minnis can be reached at 469-5716.
What is a fundamental school?
-- Fundamental schools are good choices for students who work best when expectations are clearly defined.
-- A strong emphasis is placed on the home and school working together to promote successful learning.
-- Parents or guardians are required to attend PTA and PTSA or School Advisory Council meetings, as well as parent-teacher conferences scheduled by their child's teacher.
-- Students follow a dress code. Failure to comply may result in dismissal from the school.
-- Students are expected to complete homework assignments, which parents or guardians sign. Students can receive demerits and/or detentions for noncompliance.
-- Students are expected to follow a discipline policy over and above that in the Code of Student Conduct. Those who violate the code or the additional requirements risk detention, office referral, suspension and/or recommendation for expulsion.
Editor's note: This is the third 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 Thurgood Marshall Middle School.
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