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Our Schools

Speaker advocates quality education for all

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published November 24, 2006


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Fourth-grader Kameron Hayes gripped the microphone nervously, standing before hundreds of adults at the State Fairground's Florida Center.

The USF/Patel Charter school student quickly hit his stride, though, speaking with the confidence and cadence of experience as he recited the poignant lyrics from gospel singer Kirk Franklin's 2005 CD, Hero:

I refuse to be another black statistic

A black man who can wine and dine in the sin of the world and still be considered a Christian.

I plan on being great

I care not to be less.

Kameron proved a powerful bookend to the keynote speaker at the University of South Florida's celebration of its College of Education's 50th anniversary, author and school advocate Jonathon Kozol.

Kozol offered a lengthy speech about the nation's failure to overcome the achievement gap, its willingness to allow racially segregated schools and its treatment of its poorest children as "Kmart babies" not worthy of the same benefits as children of the suburbs.

"These little children come into the schools with a price tag on their heads," said Kozol, whose recent book, The Shame of the Nation, documents a return to segregated schools. "They are America's cheap children. ... You want a Neiman Marcus baby, you've got to go out to the beautiful white suburbs."

He railed against standardized tests and "protomilitary" curricula that script every minute toward test material. He blasted politicians, like the Bush brothers, who benefited from small classes in private academies and now try to stop public school students from enjoying the same experience.

He criticized as "peripheral" the people who mentor inner-city children but then do not press for institutional change on behalf of those children.

"Teachers are the best witnesses to the inequalities that now prevail in our society," Kozol said. "If we, the teachers, won't speak out on their behalf, who will?"

At first blush, these two commentaries might seem oddly placed at a celebration attended by many community dignitaries. But Dean Colleen Kennedy wanted people to remember why the College of Education exists.

"It is about children and fostering the improvement of education for all children," she said.

The message was not lost on Kameron's mom, Fredia Easter, who lives near E 30th Street and Sligh Avenue. She says her older son, Kelly Banks Jr., has gone without take-home textbooks at Sligh Middle School, where 92 percent of students are in minority groups and 78 percent are considered low-income. She has seen Sligh cope with older band instruments while suburban schools get new.

"It's sad that they have to go to schools like that, and there are schools like that in Hillsborough County," Easter said. "This is a very sensitive topic for me. Most parents have to bus their kids or drive them across town to get them a quality education."

Alexander Elementary principal Manuel Duran nodded throughout Kozol's speech.

He endeavors daily to keep his school, where 513 of 610 children are Hispanic, from feeling educationally disadvantaged. Alexander students earned an A in the state's grading system last year, and Gov. Jeb Bush singled out the school and Duran as examples of success.

Still, Duran admits, there's little he can do to keep his students from feeling racial isolation. It is, he says, the life we deal with.

School Board member Candy Olson, hearing Kozol speak for the second time, said she finds him more compelling in person than in his written works.

She said the school district, which has set an ambitious yet elusive goal of eliminating the achievement gap, must try to repair any educational injustices it finds and to keep them from growing.

She didn't have any immediate thoughts about needed policy changes, but Olson said, "He always makes me think."

Private schools safety

Tampa's 47 private schools, serving about 14,000 children, are a hodgepodge of organizations. Unlike the public schools, they have no centralized operations, much less a public relations office to dispense critical information.

That setup has little value to the Tampa Police Department when it has to contact schools quickly. So Maj. John Bennett, who oversees the special operations division, has taken matters into his own hands.

Under Bennett's direction, the department has created a database of all private schools in the city, from New Tampa to South Tampa, and added them to the Reverse 911 system. That makes it easier to contact them if there's a general school bomb threat or a violent criminal on the loose.

"We want schools to be informed," Bennett said. "We would have to inform these schools a la carte. Now we can do it all at once."

The department also has offered to help assess the schools' security by looking at their campus designs. An officer conducted the first one, at Tampa Baptist Academy, last week.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office has contacted Tampa police to look into creating a similar program of its own.

Have opinions about this column, or ideas for future ones? Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at solochek@sptimes.com or 813 269-5304.

[Last modified November 22, 2006, 08:56:32]


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