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Keeping the faith in the face of the FCAT

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By HOWARD TROXLER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 4, 2001


Dorinda Rabbitt is an English teacher at Hillsborough High School in Tampa. Her classroom is filled, naturally, with rabbits of all description. On one wall there is a poster of a bunny, paws covering its eyes, with the caption: "How Much More of This Can I Take?"

First period begins just before 7:30. Mrs. Rabbitt's first class is ninth-grade "intensive reading." These students can read only at second- to sixth-grade level. On this day Mrs. Rabbitt has them making their own "magazines," with material clipped out of leftovers from the school library, or periodicals she pulled out of her neighbor's garbage.

The idea is to get them to relate their own life to the printed word, even if it's the sports page. Or fashion. Or, as it turns out, information on child abuse. One wall is filled with these students' posters about the possible kinds of child abuse -- sexual, physical, emotional.

Mrs. Rabbitt gets newspapers only on Wednesday. There is one set of texts, not enough to take home. Mrs. Rabbitt photocopies most of her lessons when the copier is working. She slips a student a dime so he can get his magazine bound in the library. Teachers get $150 a year for materials. So far this year she has spent about $500 of her own money.

Some of her students are still trying. Some of them are not. Absenteeism is high. So is tardiness, so much that homeroom isn't held until mid-morning.

No matter how far Mrs. Rabbitt brings up their reading skills, all of them will almost certainly be mowed down next year in the 10th grade by the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test, or FCAT. They will be labeled failures. By extension, so will Mrs. Rabbitt and her school.

After two periods of ninth-grade intensive reading, Mrs. Rabbitt teaches English II, a 10th-grade class. Sometimes she has these students make a newspaper, dated the day after Julius Casear was assassinated. The work is funny and original. There even is an advice column ("Dear Xena: I have been having these weird nightmares that feature my husband's death. Calpurnia.")

Mrs. Rabbitt brings her 10th-graders to the library to begin a week's worth of research on poets. Each student is assigned a different poet. Most of them have no clue. But the librarians are enthusiastic and helpful.

Mrs. Rabbitt is 50 years old. She has credit for 11 1/2 years of teaching. This year her annual salary will barely break $30,000. Her 26-year-old daughter just took a job for twice that.

The next day, I sit in on the classes of Rob Tarrou, who teaches math at St. Petersburg High School. He allows his first-period geometry class a minute or two of teen chaos before plunging into how to calculate the area of polygons.

Most of them are getting it. They lean forward eagerly. Mr. Tarrou does not patronize them. "You know how to do the problems in this section -- all of them," he says with mock seriousness, spoiled by a grin. His magic marker flies across the board with calculation. "I see what you're doing!" one student calls out. "Yes, that'll work!" shouts another. "Sixteen! No, wait, fourteen!"

"I'm impressed," Mr. Tarrou says, catching his breath and looking at each pair of eyes. "Is everybody all right?"

Mr. Tarrou plunges into his other classes of the day: pre-calculus, statistics, trigonometry. He is 29 years old and has been a teacher for 5 1/2 years. He, too, makes just over $30,000 a year.

"I don't think I could not teach," he tells me.

These days, Florida's public policy is based on certain assumptions: that teachers in public schools are failing. That we can prove their failure with standardized tests. That private schools are automatically superior. How Mrs. Rabbitt and Mr. Tarrou keep their faith in the face of all that is beyond me. But I am grateful to them for it.

- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at troxler@sptimes.com.

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