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Schools

Sixth-grader engineers a feat

By NICK JOHNSON
Published April 11, 2007


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Sixth-grader Riley Locke attends the Riviera Academy for Engineering program at Riviera Middle School. He likes the added challenge the program provides and the comfort of spending most of the day with the same group of kids.

The engineering students get to do things like build bridges out of balsa wood and see how much weight they hold. Riley says he could see himself designing real buildings or bridges one day.

On March 22, the Thursday before spring break, Riley received a note to take home that said the engineering program would be canceled next year and that attempts had been made to contact his parents by phone. It said that if they had already chosen Riviera Middle School, they were encouraged to stay, but if not, to contact the Choice Center.

The deadline for school choice applications was two days away.

Riley was upset, as were his parents. He had planned to attend Riviera next year and continue in the program, which he preferred to regular classes.

Riley and his mother, Kelly Locke, discussed their options at dinner. They felt that the notice was too short for an entire program to be canceled without any explanation.

"We've got to do something. What can we do?" Riley asked his mom.

"I said, 'Well, we can write a letter to get people together,' " she said, "and the next thing I know, Riley was off doing it."

The boy wrote a letter protesting the cancellation. His mother approved the final draft and included her phone number and e-mail address. The next day, he handed it out to teachers and fellow students.

Eventually the letter made its way to the sixth-grade administrator, who made him stop handing them out. Any fliers distributed in class must be approved by the principal, she said.

But Riley's letter had served its purpose. Principal Phil Wirth got the message.

"It definitely got my attention that parents were very concerned about it," Wirth said.

The program was canceled, he said, because of a lack of money and planning for next year.

It wasn't until the protest letter and parent phone calls began coming in that Wirth realized how strongly everyone felt about the program.

Talks began with the Pinellas County School Board to find money for the program. A curriculum would need to be written for a seventh-grade class.

"There's a big advantage to researching and developing a program ahead of time, which we didn't have here," Wirth said.

The engineering program is an "attractor," or special program that all Pinellas County schools are required to have. The programs are incentives to draw students to the school.

Most attractors are funded through grants or sponsorships outside of existing funds allotted to schools.

This was the first year of Riviera's engineering program, and no grants had been written to fund it.

For the program to continue, a curriculum and grants must be worked out this summer. The School Board has agreed to provide money to pay teachers for the additional time it will take.

Wirth said a lot of work remains. "It's kind of like changing the tire on a car while it's still running," he said.

In the meantime, Riley is happy that he will be able to continue attending the program, and knows he had a hand in it: "It's really exciting, actually. I fought for something I cared for, and I won."

Nick Johnson can be reached at nickjohnson@sptimes.com or 893-8215.

[Last modified April 11, 2007, 07:02:07]


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