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Schools getting fundamental

Three Hillsborough elementary schools plan to use some elements of a method that's proved successful in Pinellas.

Published July 10, 2005

TAMPA - The elementary school with the top student test scores in the state, located in Tarpon Springs, uses a strict approach. Parents must be involved. Students must behave.

If parents and students don't play by the rules at Tarpon Springs Fundamental School, children can be transferred out.

The school led the state this year in test scores - outpacing more than 1,600 other schools in Florida. Its performance - 100 percent of its kids made the highest scores in writing - makes many schools drool with jealousy.

Now, Hillsborough County public school educators plan to duplicate some elements of the school's unique approach this fall at three elementary schools being converted to fundamental academies.

The elementary schools - Just, Potter and Booker T. Washington - are all in poor neighborhoods. They will make the transition to fundamental schools when classes resume Aug. 4. The change is part of the school district's overhaul of its attractor programs, which aim to attract a racially diverse student body.

But based on early plans, parents should not expect the Hillsborough version of fundamental schools to be a mirror image of those in Pinellas County. Hillsborough's fundamental schools will be organized and run much differently than those in the neighboring county.

In Pinellas, the rules at fundamental schools are more strict, and children who do not follow them are moved elsewhere. But in Hillsborough, the rules will not be so explicit. And unlike most of the fundamental schools in Pinellas, which draw kids from across the county, the schools here are targeting neighborhood children.

Still, Hillsborough educators are hopeful the schools - all graded F or D by the state this year - will improve with a new structure. The curriculum will be basically the same as at other schools, but the expectations for teachers, students and parents will be raised.

The ultimate goal, said Hillsborough director of elementary education Joyce Haines, is higher student achievement.

"We want to make sure we're setting and providing high expectations for students," she said. "We're pretty convinced we're going to see some dramatic learning gains."

Each school will emphasize a back-to-basics structure. Students will be required to wear uniforms, behave and do their homework. Parents are asked to participate.

Parents, teachers and students have to sign an agreement saying they will follow the rules. "The goal is for each student to reach their highest potential academically, socially and emotionally. For this to occur, the school, home and community must work together," the contract says.

And if the parents fail to make it to teacher conferences or if students get into too many fights?

Haines said there's a "possibility" those children will be transferred to other schools - a less strict stance than at Pinellas fundamental schools.

If the agreement is broken at a Hillsborough fundamental school, "then we'll try to look at the reasons why," Haines said. "But we're in the business of meeting students' needs, not saying, "This is the line in the sand.' We haven't gotten to that point yet."

When asked if she expects to transfer children because they or their parents break the rules, Booker T. Washington principal Maria Tudela said she's hopeful that will not happen.

"They're going to enjoy being at Booker T. Washington," she said. "They will not want to go home in the afternoon."

Pinellas has five fundamental elementary schools and two fundamental middle schools. Most of the schools draw from students countywide, similar to magnet schools. Most have waiting lists of children wanting to get in.

Unlike the Pinellas schools, which have specific guidelines on what parents must do and how many times children can act up at school, Hillsborough's rules at the three schools are more squishy.

Parents are not required to attend a certain number of PTA meetings or conferences with teachers. It is not spelled out how many times children can get in trouble, other than in the student conduct code that applies to all schools.

In Pinellas, parents of children in fundamental schools must attend three meetings with their child's teacher a year, or have a really good excuse why they cannot. When the rules are broken, parents and students are referred to an intervention committee that decides if a child should be placed in detention or if parents should be placed on probation. In the worst-case scenario, a student is transferred elsewhere.

"It's all pretty black and white and all spelled out," said Len Kizner, who was principal of Bay Vista Fundamental Elementary for nine years before his retirement a year ago. "When they say, "Who are you to tell me I have to sign this homework?' We can say, "You don't have to come here.' "

Another major difference between the schools in Pinellas and Hillsborough is transportation. In Pinellas, no transportation is provided. Parents must arrange to get their children to school.

"That was part of the program," Kizner said. "We wanted parents who were committed."

In Hillsborough, transportation will be provided to those children who live in the school's attendance boundary.

The Pinellas schools have been challenged at least twice in court. Once, the school district won when its lack of transportation was questioned. In another case, a child had been transferred because the parent couldn't attend an event because she was in the hospital on dialysis. The district lost.

When Bay Vista converted from a traditional neighborhood school to a fundamental campus, about 60 percent of its students chose to go elsewhere, Kizner said. The first year Bay Vista was a fundamental school, he said it went from one of the worst schools in Pinellas to one of the 10 best.

Children, he said, were rarely transferred because of the strong reputation of fundamental schools in Pinellas.

But the ability to transfer students is one of the key factors that give fundamental schools in Pinellas their teeth, said Bud Zimmer, a fundamental schools advocate there whose two children attended the schools.

"If you don't transfer, you're dead in the water," said Zimmer, who is sometimes called Mr. Fundamental. "If little Johnny is messing up classroom time, time and time again, other kids stop learning when Johnny is acting up."

Pinellas' first fundamental school, Curtis Elementary in Clearwater, converted in 1976. This year, it finished seventh in state test score rankings.

Curtis principal Kathy Duncan said the school succeeds because of its connection with parents.

"Parents follow through with what you ask them to do," she said. "They are our partners. They value education. They value what we do in the school.

"One thing we don't have is behavioral problems you find in other schools."

In Hillsborough, teachers at the three fundamental schools will receive extra training. The schools will offer more rigorous math classes than they did last year and students will read major pieces of literature.

During a recent meeting of teachers and administrators at Booker T. Washington on Estelle Street near downtown Tampa, teachers bubbled with enthusiasm. Never mind that the state graded the school a D for low student test scores. Never mind that 7 out of every 10 children there are reading below grade level.

Said Tudela, the principal: "We are going to bring the kids through the ceiling. Come back and talk to us when we're an A."

Melanie Ave can be reached at 813 226-3400 or

[Last modified July 9, 2005, 23:34:17]

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