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Festive air -- and unfortunate snare

The days of the Folk Fair reserved for students - the target of its mission of tolerance - happen to fall right before the FCAT.

By JON WILSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- A major scholastic demand is cutting into one of the traditions of St. Petersburg's annual Folk Fair.

Each year, thousands of students attend on special days set aside just for them. Schools buy the tickets in advance and an average of 18,000 youngsters typically attend, fair organizers say.

It means money for the ethnic clubs and the St. Petersburg International Folk Fair Society, which is holding this year's event at the Bayfront Center downtown.

But more important, fair leaders say, the heavy student attendance gives the society a chance to accomplish its main mission: teaching tolerance to young people.

This year, the state's standardized testing is threatening to reduce the number of students visiting the fair on the days reserved for them, March 7-9. Student ticket sales for this year's fair are running at least 7,000 fewer than expected, SPIFFS officials say.

The fair opens to the public at 3 p.m. March 9, immediately after the last show for students, and runs through March 11.

The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, known as FCAT, is being administered in Pinellas County March 12-15.

Teachers typically prepare students for the important test the week before and often do not schedule outside events such as field trips.

The problem is that SPIFFS has to set the dates of the fair a year in advance, which usually means a date decision at least by April.

Meanwhile, the school system doesn't know the dates of the FCAT tests until later in the year, when the state tells local school districts. The 2001 dates came out last October, said Ron Stone, spokesman for the Pinellas County school system.

Nonetheless, said Stone, at least 10 schools are currently scheduled to attend, which he said he believes is "in the ballpark" for the week before the fair.

"It's not quite as bad it being the week of the fair, but the real emphasis is on preparation" the week before FCATs, Stone said.

The tests March 12-15 are the reading and mathematics sections and are administered to third- through 10th-graders, "which is the bulk of our population," Stone said.

Test scores are strongly tied to state rankings of schools, which mean money to schools that are improving. Teachers and principals emphasize the importance of the tests and spend time preparing for them.

The typical student attendance of 18,000 could be cut in half, said SPIFFS president Macari Bishara. At $4 per student ticket, that means a possible $36,000 drop in revenue for the event, in addition to less money for the ethnic clubs that have booths selling food and merchandise.

But money isn't the main point, Bishara said.

"One thing I'm more concerned about is that we really do this whole thing for students and education. If they don't come, that means we don't accomplish our mission," Bishara said.

"It's not a financial thing. It's not that things are going to go wrong. Nothing is going to go wrong. We do it for students and we feel good when students come."

A few years ago, SPIFFS struggled with its finances after two days of rain washed out attendance when the fair was held outside. There was talk that the fair might have to end. But sale of the organization's building on First Avenue S and two years of successful events put the group back on sound footing.

Fewer students this year won't do serious harm to the event's future, Bishara said.

"It's a financial strain, but we're not going to get hurt, we're not going to cry over that. We're financially okay," Bishara said.

The worst-case scenario would be fewer student days on the calendar next year, said Bethia Caffery, who founded the event in 1976.

"I'm not blaming the testing. This is a challenge that SPIFFS needs to face," Caffery said.

Elementary through high school students attend, with about 60 percent coming from Pinellas, said fair manager Gail Wallace. Students also come from Hillsborough, Pasco, Manatee and Sarasota counties, with some traveling from as far away as Fort Myers, Orlando and Daytona Beach, Wallace said. Some college students also attend, she said.

At least one Hillsborough County school had to cancel its trip because a test was pushed back, Wallace said.

"It's nobody's fault. It's just the way it came out this year," she said. "But I don't know what to do about it."

* * *

WHAT: St. Petersburg International Folk Fair

WHEN: March 9-11

WHERE: Bayfront Center, 400 First St. S

Schedule of entertainment main stage

(subject to change)

March 9

3 p.m. -- Celtic singers Dave and Angel

4 p.m. -- American folk arts, Susan Bayer Haley

5 p.m. -- Russian

5:40 p.m. -- Gypsy dancers

6 p.m. -- Call of Polynesia, with fire dancers

7 p.m. -- Celtic folk music

8 p.m. -- Serbian

8:20 p.m. -- Haitian dancers

March 10

10:20 a.m. -- Korean

10:40 a.m. -- Vietnamese

11 a.m. -- Venezuelan

11:20 a.m. -- Haitian dancers

11:40 a.m. -- Laotian

Noon -- Chinese

12:20 p.m. -- Hawaiian

12:40 p.m. -- Hellenic

1 p.m. -- Grand Opening, Parade of Nations

2 p.m. -- Turkish

2:20 p.m. -- Ukrainian

2:40 p.m. -- Lithuanian

3 p.m. -- Iranian

3:20 p.m. -- Finnish

3:40 p.m. -- Argentina

4 p.m. -- Latvian

4:20 p.m. -- Filipino

4:40 p.m. -- Mexico

5 p.m. -- American Indian

5:20 p.m. -- Haitian singer

5:40 p.m. -- Korean

6 p.m. -- Call of Polynesia, with fire dancers

7 p.m. -- Italian

7:20 p.m. -- Portuguese

7:40 p.m. -- Serbian

8 p.m. -- Vietnamese

8:20 p.m. -- Celtic performers Dave and Angel

March 11

11:20 a.m. -- Celtic singers Dave and Angel

11:40 a.m. -- Finnish

Noon -- Peruvian

12:20 p.m. -- Haitian singer

12:40 p.m. -- Portuguese

1 p.m. -- African-American

1:20 p.m. -- Haitian singer 1:40 p.m. -- Scottish

2 p.m. -- German

2:20 p.m. -- Irish

2:40 p.m. -- SPICE

3 p.m. -- Call of Polynesia, with fire dancers

4 p.m. -- American Indian

4:20 p.m. -- Israeli

4:40 p.m. -- Polish

5 p.m. -- Special closing, including guest performers from Mexico, "Person of Courage" award

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