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    Classes help tottering students find their balance

    Though it seems to be working, the academic assistance program, offered at 36 Pinellas schools, may not continue next year due to a lack of funds.

    By KELLY RYAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001


    For the first time in three years, Boca Ciega High School student Mark Kortvely will be able to skateboard, practice his saxophone and relax this summer.

    Instead of going to summer school again, the struggling math student is getting extra help with algebra after school. More than just convenient, the class actually seems to be helping.

    "In summer school, I've never made better than a C," said Kortvely, 16. "Now I'm making an A."

    Kortvely is part of an experiment that is playing out all over Pinellas County, in 17 elementary schools, eight middle schools and 11 high schools. Each school was given about $10,000 in grant money to answer this question: Is it better to help struggling students while they are struggling or months later in summer school?

    In the past four weeks, the 36 schools that got the grant money have started before-school, after-school or Saturday school programs so students can make up failed classes or avoid failing classes. Because the program is new, schools don't yet have data to say whether the program is working.

    But anecdotally, principals, teachers and parents say they have already seen a difference.

    "I started noticing she started going to school more," Rose Dean said of her 17-year-old daughter, Amanda Munoz, who attends Boca Ciega High in Gulfport. "She is very positive about the classes. Her grades have started going up."

    For years, it was a no-brainer: Students who failed classes or progressed too slowly were sent to summer school. During the past few years, though, school districts around Florida have been forced to trim their summer offerings because of shrinking state funds. In Pinellas, summer school isn't even open to all struggling students, just those who struggle the most.

    Some educators, including Dunedin Highland Middle School principal Peg Landers, don't think summer school really meets the needs of today's students anyway. Why wait until June to help someone who is obviously struggling in October?

    Waiting until summer to redo a class can forever put a high school student behind. Students who failed first-semester algebra, for example, have to wait until summer to make it up -- so they have to skip second-semester algebra. With the after-school program, a student can take two levels of math simultaneously.

    "By the end of the school year, then, they have had no assistance," Landers said of students targeted for summer school. "Their self-esteem is in the gutter. They have probably accumulated several more F's. I think true remediation should be immediate."

    Last summer, fewer students chose to attend summer school than the district expected, so $300,000 was left over. That money has to be spent by the end of June, so district-level curriculum officials offered it to schools. Each school, then, could design a program to meet the needs of its students.

    Most schools are focusing on reading and math, though some also are offering course work in writing and science.

    Using test scores, most schools hand-selected the students who are participating and sought their parents' permission. Because funds are limited, most schools can serve no more than a couple of dozen students, which keeps class sizes small. Most classes are two to four hours a week.

    Dixie Hollins High School in St. Petersburg started its own after-school pilot program last year through its adult education center. Administrators found that far more students completed the after-school program than similar night school classes. They attributed the success to convenience and individualized instruction.

    "It's self-paced. We don't push people," said Debby VanderWoude, assistant principal and night-school administrator. "It's more of a one-on-one approach so the teacher circulates and helps students."

    Several schools say not only are they trying to reverse a pattern of failure but also to make learning fun. They are doing that with individualized instruction, group work and hands-on projects.

    At Campbell Park Elementary School in St. Petersburg, for example, students learning about division aren't just given worksheets in the after-school program. Instead, students work math problems using giant, colored cubes.

    The students also benefit from working in familiar surroundings with teachers who already know them. Summer school is offered at limited sites, so students are often on unfamiliar turf.

    "We recognize children have lots of different learning styles and different things that make things click," said Mary Conage, who is helping to coordinate the program. "With the smaller groups, we can tap into what the particular learning styles are."

    Even if the program is successful, it could be short-lived.

    The 2001-2002 budget promises to be tight, and summer school coordinator Pam Fisher said she doesn't know whether money will be available for the program to continue.

    Participating schools

    These are the North Pinellas schools offering help before school, after school or on Saturdays for struggling students:

    Brooker Creek Elementary

    Curtis Fundamental Elementary

    Forest Lakes Elementary

    Largo Central Elementary

    Ponce de Leon Elementary

    South Ward Elementary

    Southern Oak Elementary

    Tarpon Springs Fundamental Elementary

    Dunedin Highland Middle

    Fitzgerald Middle

    Kennedy Middle School

    Largo Middle

    Oak Grove Middle

    Countryside High

    Dunedin High

    Largo High

    Osceola High

    Tarpon Springs High

    - Source: Pinellas County schools

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