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    Students' portrait

    The unique study started 12 years ago with 8,267 students. It continues to provide an in-depth look at the 4,118 who remain.

    [Family photo]
    Joe Lang, seated in the middle of the second row, attended kindergarten at Azalea Elementary in 1989-90. Now 17, Lang, right, is student body president at St. Petersburg High School and wants to attend West Point.

    By KELLY RYAN

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published August 19, 2001


    In the fall of 1989, Reginald Dudley started kindergarten.

    Twelve years later, the Pinellas County School District knows an extraordinary amount about Dudley and his peers. It knows how much the students weighed at birth and when they started to crawl.

    The district knows how many are suspended every year, how many earn straight A's and how many spend four hours or more per day in front of the TV. Researchers know if the students are uncomfortable changing clothes in locker rooms. They know if the students eat breakfast.

    As part of a study believed to be the only one of its kind in the nation, Pinellas school researchers have surveyed Dudley and his peers every year about their education, their families and their behavior.

    Dudley starts his senior year at Gibbs High School on Wednesday. Since he started school, the class of 2002 has changed dramatically.

    Only 4,118 are left from the original kindergarten group of 8,267. Of those still in Pinellas schools, only 2,819, about 68 percent, are set to graduate from high school on time. About 23 percent, or 964, are a year behind.

    photo
    [Times photo: Bill Serne]
    In his bedroom, Reginald Dudley, 17, works on a page drawing for a comic book. He also is a member of the wrestling team at Gibbs High School and plays drums in a youth group. Dudley attended kindergarten at Lynch Elementary in 1989-90 (right).
    This study provides a portrait of Dudley and his classmates, of the bumps in their school careers that set them up for later failures and of the "Aha!" moments that made struggling students successful.

    "Twelfth grade and graduation are going to be important," said Octavio Salcedo, the district's study manager. "As these kids become young adults, we're going to track a smaller group. It'll give us some clues. Some kids are going to do better than others."

    Dudley, who attends the Pinellas County Center for the Arts, had involved parents who refused to let their son incorrectly be put in special-education classes in elementary school. He enrolled in a fundamental school, his mom sought tutors when he struggled, and he found his art when he learned to draw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

    Kyle Shay, 17, attended Lealman Discovery for at-risk middle school students, which helped his self-esteem before he got to Dixie Hollins High. Jim Lang, also 17, now student body president at St. Petersburg High School, had a drama teacher who pulled him out of his shell.

    "One of the biggest things in a classroom and raising a family is to have high expectations and to let students know you have expectations of them," said Lang's mother, Elsie, who used to be a teacher.

    The "Omnibus project," as it is called, was the brainchild of former Superintendent Scott Rose, who noticed an increasingly diverse group of students starting school. He thought the data would help tailor lessons, teaching strategies and after-school programs to the students' needs.

    The parents, students and teachers who filled out surveys were candid. Some mothers admitted abusing alcohol, drugs and tobacco during their pregnancies. Students confessed to riding bikes without helmets. Some teachers admitted they didn't think some of their students would find success.

    Right now, the data is merely a collection of eye-opening statistics about students in one of the largest urban school districts in the nation. Once the students graduate, project manager Salcedo said, his staff will analyze the data so policymakers can use it.

    photo
    Kyle Shay, age 5 1/2 in 1989.
    photo
    Kyle Shay, how 17, is a senior at Dixie Hollins High School.
    One key question Salcedo wants answered: How did some at-risk students who seemed bound to fail succeed? Was it preschool? Mentoring programs? Good nutrition and exercise? Parental involvement in school? High expectations by teachers?

    Even penciling in the surveys opened some parents' eyes.

    Dudley's mom, Rennee, realized her children were watching too much television. Dudley, 17, realized he should get out of the house more. Now, he's a member of the wrestling team, plays drums in a youth group and draws superhero comics in his free time.

    That is, when he's not trying to master geometry, which he studied on his own this summer to prepare for college preparatory exams. His math teachers, he said, hurt more than they helped. Though about 70 percent of his peers said mom helped with homework, math has gotten so complicated, Dudley's mother said she really couldn't.

    "I've always wanted to be a whiz kid," said Dudley, who wants to go to college in Florida but isn't sure where. "I've got big plans."

    In the early years, the survey noticeably affected school programs.

    Superintendent Howard Hinesley said the district studied the 700 students who were held back in kindergarten, which helped it develop new ways to identify struggling students. He said the district put more resources into mentoring and volunteer programs, as well as before- and after-school care, after data showed that parents felt they did not have enough time to help their children with homework.

    The data also have inspired dozens of university research projects. One looked at parenting styles. One looked at career paths that interested students. Another study showed that a teacher's high expectations improved a poor student's chance of academic success.

    In another case, a study found that African-American children are more alienated when they arrive in middle school, though white girls are at the greatest risk of adjusting poorly to middle school because they tended to have such positive feelings about elementary school.

    While at Lealman for middle school, Shay was paired with a mentor from the St. Petersburg Police Department. Maj. Tim Story helped Shay with school, personal issues and playing hoops. Story was a role model for Shay, who was raised by his mom.

    That mentoring program and the small class sizes at Lealman helped Shay pull up his confidence, both socially and in his most difficult subject, reading.

    "In elementary, nobody cares about the way you look and who you are," said Shay, who is on Dixie Hollins High's bowling team and in a robotics club, with plans to study mechanical engineering at the University of South Florida. "In middle school, everyone cares. In high school, everyone is too busy."

    After freshman year, 67 percent of the students planned to go to college. Lang was one of them.

    Just back from a trip visiting colleges, Lang knows he wants to attend West Point and study political science after graduating from St. Petersburg High's International Baccalaureate program. After that, he is only sure of one thing: He doesn't want to be a lawyer like his dad, two older brothers and two uncles.

    What has been the secret to his success? He credits his supportive parents, who have lived in the same house for 35 years; a fourth-grade teacher who gave him extra responsibilities; and a ninth-grade teacher whose rigorous drama lessons gave him confidence after he felt alienated in middle school.

    "It's going to be a really busy year," said Lang, a swimmer who sometimes pulls all-nighters to finish his schoolwork. "I don't think I am going to sleep."

    By the numbers

    Pinellas schools have collected data on the students who entered kindergarten in 1989. Here is a snapshot of this study group as it moved through school:

    • 55 percent attended preschool.
    • 12 percent of first-graders' families reported less than $10,000 in family income.
    • 75 percent of fifth-graders said they could be themselves and still be accepted.
    • 55 percent of sixth-graders thought it would be fun to be a skydiver.
    • 40 percent of seventh-graders said they "sometimes" wear a seat belt in a car.
    • 42 percent of eighth-graders had served in-school suspensions.
    • 50 percent of ninth-graders said they were not worried about school violence.
    • 14 percent of ninth-graders were in dropout prevention programs.

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