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PACE program should be expanded, not eliminated

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By C. T. BOWEN, Pasco Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 9, 2003

Michelle Spillman is a B student with 15 credits toward her high school diploma. She used to carry Ds on her report card.

Tia Gudel liked to skip classes, get in fights and was failing every subject. Her worst mark now is a C and she is only a half-credit behind the rest of the high school sophomores.

They are two of the 38 students at the PACE Center Inc. for girls in New Port Richey. The stories are all similar. Eighty-seven percent of the center's students boost their test scores, improve at least one grade level and stay out of trouble after leaving.

Now the students are learning about politics. They are dismayed at the prospect of the center closing. Pasco's PACE Center has an annual budget of $573,000, 71 percent of which comes from the Department of Juvenile Justice. It is housed on the second floor of a non-descript office building at Grand Boulevard and Gulf Drive in New Port Richey.

But, Gov. Jeb. Bush's proposed budget for the coming year eliminates the Department of Juvenile Justice funding for the 19 PACE centers around the state.

"My mom's devastated," said Gudel, who first enrolled because of her mother, then chose to re-enroll because of the school's small class sizes, individualized attention and because "the people care. They don't want you to see you get in trouble." Without PACE, she said, she would have dropped out.

Spillman shared her own history last week with Pasco's legislative delegation. She is eager to tell others. "Whose mind do we need to change?" she asks the school's staff.

Good question.

The accolades for the work at PACE are universal. It is a year-round school intended to get girls back on track academically. The girls, age 12 to 18, come from dysfunctional families. Some abuse drugs and alcohol. Many are victims of physical or sexual abuse. They have been involved in the juvenile justice system or are at risk of joining it.

They spend a year or so at PACE before moving back to a traditional public school. They study in classes of 12 students, receive counseling and are schooled in what PACE calls its spirited girls curriculum: life skills, health, career guidance, diversity, tolerance and other strategies to curb the abusive or risky behavior that brought them to PACE initially.

More than 130 girls are in the transition program, followed for three years after leaving the center. Last year, PACE studied girls who had been a part of the program for at least six months. The recidivism rate was zero.

At any time, the waiting list to enroll is 20 to 60 girls. So naturally, the talk is not of expansion, but of elimination.

Pasco's legislators appear sympathetic. It's only the governor's budget proposal that cuts the funding, cautioned Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. The Legislature still gets its chance to guide the state's finances. Rep. Ken Littlefield, R-Dade City, touted the benefits of proactive spending. Why do we keep putting expensive ambulances at the bottom of the cliff when it would be so much cheaper to put a guardrail at the top of the cliff, he asked?

Let's see if Littlefield chooses between a $600-million tax cut included in the governor's budget proposal or the $9.7-million guardrail to be cut from the 19 PACE Centers.

The Department of Juvenile Justice isn't the only social services agency in Florida facing budget troubles. But, we'll focus on PACE because the suggested alternatives -- reincorporating as a charter school or asking the state Department of Education to pick up the tab -- are unworkable.

It also is worth noting that the two public servants most responsible for the PACE school locating to Pasco County five years ago are Republicans: Circuit Court Clerk Jed Pittman and County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand. Pittman proposed using $27,500 in excess fees from his office as seed money to set up the school. Hildebrand ran with the idea and chaired the center's board of directors.

"I just would hate to see all that hard work go for naught," Hildebrand said. "It's just frustrating."

Danielle Taylor-Fagan, executive director of the Pasco center, offers similar sentiment.

"Our communities will suffer, our girls will suffer, families will suffer," she said.

Neither can ignore the irony of a prominent woman this week joining with advocates who highlighted the need for gender-specific, prevention programs for girls.

The woman was Columba Bush, the governor's wife.

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