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Column

Vigilant parents can bridge school gaps

By KENT FISCHER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 9, 2003

Kent Fischer has covered Pasco schools for the past five years, during which time he won three first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association. As he prepared to leave for a new job in Dallas, he wrote down his thoughts of the state of public education in Pasco County schools and in Florida.

* * *

Consider yourselves lucky, Pasco parents. Your schools are pretty good, all things considered.

Could they be better? Certainly. Smaller schools, smaller classes and more vocational programs would be a good start.

But if you're a reasonably involved, "on-top-of-it" kind of parent, there is no reason your kids won't leave high school with at least a decent education.

Did you notice the caveat? I put the onus on you, parents, not the district.

I've written about education for 10 years. I've covered schools and the politics of education in three states. In my experience, there is only one absolute: Schools are only as good as parents make them.

For more than five years, I've watched, explored and probed the Pasco County School District. I witnessed some pretty good teaching. Occasionally, I saw ineptitude.

Know what I never saw? I never saw an honor roll kid whose parents didn't set high standards.

Don't get me wrong. Pasco has some mediocre teachers making dubious decisions, and I hear from affected parents and kids. Many of those families have legitimate gripes, and I've tried to shine a light on their problems.

But too often parents who have been "wronged" fail to reflect on their role in their kid's education. It's always somebody else's fault. Like the mother who called me about a year ago with her plan to sue the district for malpractice because her fifth-grade son could barely read.

A good story? Sure, until I discovered that her son had missed nearly three weeks of school that year. The mom hung up on me when I asked why her son was so often truant.

That doesn't mean that the district is without warts.

Schools today (and it's not just Pasco) put too much emphasis on the college track. We've forgotten about the kids in the middle, the kids who would rather build something than deconstruct it. Somewhere along the way we've convinced ourselves that college is the only path to a successful, prosperous life.

It's not entirely the schools' fault. State graduation standards emphasize the academic, not the vocational. It's as if the politicians and educrats who make these rules never needed the services of a plumber.

If you're bright, you've got options: advanced placement, honors classes, even college courses. If you've got a learning disability, there's a special education system in place to ensure your needs are met (at least in theory).

But what have we done for kids in the middle? Little more than pack them into classes with three dozen other lemmings. The result: Detached kids in a herd of mediocrity.

The problem is compounded when you consider that nobody crams more kids into its schoolhouses than Florida.

Walk into any high school and you'll be swamped by a sea of faces, particularly in grow-grow Pasco, where red portable classrooms pepper campuses like pimples on a teenager.

Pasco's nine high schools average 1,631 students. Middle schools aren't much better. At nearly half of Pasco's elementary schools, enrollment is greater than 700, and three of them have enrollments topping 1,000.

Compare that to the size of the average American elementary school: 482.

Florida schools are simply too big. Never was that point made more clear than last spring, when I examined the state's publicly funded charter school movement.

Over and over I asked parents why they were fleeing their neighborhood schools for unproven charters. Invariably, I heard the same answer: County schools are too big. Charters are smaller, more friendly and so are worth the risk.

I doubt that Florida will ever seriously tackle this issue. One of the very first stories I covered at the Times was a special legislative session in 1997. It was convened to reduce the state's reliance on portables, but politicians balked when they saw the price tag.

To their credit, they borrowed $2.7-billion to pay for new schools (less than half of what was needed). But they undermined the effort by allowing bureaucrats to count thousands of portables as permanent classroom space. The change meant that overnight, without building a single school, Florida's classrooms went from critically jammed to uncomfortably crowded.

That's typical Florida. Rather than deal with an educational issue, bureaucrats would rather make it go away with a wink, or fix it on the cheap. Just look at the governor's disdain for the class-size reduction amendment, the new requirement that Florida make a serious dent in classroom crowding. It's an expensive mandate, and Jeb Bush wants no part of it.

That kind of attitude is a shame, because good teaching is all about relationships, not standardized test scores. Education is about kids, parents and teachers working together and having confidence in one another. The average high school teacher instructs about 150 kids every day. Personal attention? Only if you fight for it. And how many kids are going to make that kind of effort?

Given everything working against it -- big schools, aloof parents, overwhelmed teachers -- it's a wonder Florida's public education system hasn't collapsed.

Some think that it has. High dropout rates, the proliferation of charter schools and a chronic teacher shortage are evidence that public schools are broken, critics argue.

My take: We got what we paid for.

The good news is that vigilant parents can overcome many of the system's shortfalls. Indifferent parenting makes them insurmountable.

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