The Pinellas County school district has repeatedly rejected calls from a faith-based alliance to change the way reading instruction is delivered in high-poverty elementary schools.
Board members said no. Former superintendent John Stewart said no. District administrators said no.
But Faith and Action for Strength Together, or FAST, isn't going away. The group, which includes about 36 churches, a synagogue and a mosque, is looking for new allies among the business and higher education communities to help push a teaching method called "direct instruction."
The phonics-based program includes carefully prescribed lessons and intense review intended to make sure kids master concepts as they go. School Board members have said it might be appropriate as a supplemental program for some, but not as the core of the reading curriculum. FAST members say it needs to be at the heart of efforts to boost poor reading.
"We're not giving up the fight," said Rev. Robert Ward, pastor of Mount Moriah Baptist Church in St. Petersburg.
Members of FAST will travel Wednesday to visit high-poverty elementary schools in Baltimore that have had success with the program. Going with the group are Bill Law, president of St. Petersburg College; Craig Sher, former chairman of the Pinellas Education Foundation; Karen Reich, chief executive officer of Bon Secours St. Petersburg; and Manuel Sykes, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP chapter.
Sher, who is executive chairman of the commercial construction firm Sembler Co., said he's going on the trip as a private citizen, not on behalf of the foundation. He said foundation members aren't "experts on curriculum."
"I wanted to learn more about it. I'm going there to learn. I'm not a proponent or an opponent," he said.
Ward said he wants to hear opinions from outside FAST. He hopes they, too, agree that direct instruction is the solution to persistent academic failures in high-poverty schools.
"If so, we'll ask their support in getting our school board to consider it," he said.
Sykes said the NAACP has never pushed a curriculum. But, in his 19 years in the community, he said the school district hasn't been successful in reaching its poorest students, many of whom are black and Hispanic.
"The result is that we're still in the same place," he said.
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Seven schools in Pinellas County, including one charter, were identified by the state Department of Education as being among the 100 lowest performers statewide this year. Some of those schools, like Melrose Elementary, were targeted by FAST for direct instruction.
At Melrose this year, just 16 percent of third-graders earned a grade-level score on the FCAT. At Lakewood Elementary, another of the seven schools, 23 percent of third-graders earned a proficient score.
Ward said the group has focused on reading instruction because there's a strong link between the inability to read by third grade and dropping out of school in later years.
Pinellas was one of several Florida school districts singled out for its low graduation rates among black males in the 2010 report by the Schott Foundation for Public Education. The report put the graduation rate for black males at 21 percent; white males had a 50 percent rate.
District leaders criticized the report, which didn't account for students who moved or earned GEDs and special diplomas.
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Law said he knows "almost nothing" about K-12 education. But he knows a large number of students arrive at St. Petersburg College needing remedial work.
"I scratch my head some days wondering how they got as far as they did," he said.
A number of students think that because they passed the FCAT they are ready for college-level work, he said. They often are shocked when they are placed into remedial courses.
"They'll say, 'No, no, that can't be right. I passed the FCAT,' " he said. "As if the two are related."
Last fall, only about 53 percent of students passed a remedial writing course, while 60 percent passed remedial reading, according to the college.
"If we don't get them through this part, college is over," Law said. Law said it's "too easy" to blame the high schools or the school district. But it does make sense to consider how students are doing at younger ages.
"The reality is that if we keep doing what we're doing, we're going to keep getting what we've got," he said.
School officials have said direct instruction is available to schools that want to use it. But they say it's not good for every student.
New superintendent Mike Grego toured some of the district's lowest-performing schools last week, including Melrose. He said direct instruction could be worth exploring, but he cautioned against expecting a single program to work for all. "We can't jump around from program to program," he said. "Programs don't teach. Teachers teach."
Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at [email protected], (727) 893-8846 or on Twitter @Fitz_ly.