ST. PETERSBURG — They heard from a substitute teacher who said she has been threatened by her middle school students.
They listened to a 24-year-old classroom volunteer who said he was appalled that seventh-graders didn't know the state capital or how to find it on a map and who also couldn't read.
And they heard from a pastor who complained that he found bureaucracy at every turn when he tried to volunteer as a mentor.
Organized by the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, the state of-the-school forum was held at John Hopkins Middle School, which has been plagued recently by reports of student violence.
Several of the panelists — including Circuit Court Judge Michael Andrews and Ray Tampa, president of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — argued that a successful classroom experience begins at home, with the proper influence and supervision of parents.
Claude Effiom, the embattled principal of John Hopkins, strayed on this point.
"As a school leader … I just have to deal with what is there," Effiom said. "And I do know that we have a lot of success stories irregardless of where the child comes from."
Effiom said his school was working to identify why certain children are disruptive, what teachers need to succeed and to pair every child with a mentor.
"Everybody on campus needs to be a school resource officer," Effiom said.
Rashida Strober, a substitute teacher in Pinellas schools, said that objects and strong words have been hurled at her in class. Her 11-year-old son is homeschooled, she said.
"My son has never gone to a public school in Florida and it's because of one reason: violence, violence and more violence," said Strober, 32.
She suggested the district use cameras in classrooms.
Assistant school superintendent Jim Madden said the schools were committed to working with every child. Most middle schoolers are not violent, Madden added.
"How do you expect these children to learn when there are almost no good readers in the classroom?" said Johnny Boykins, the classroom volunteer who asked seventh-graders to find Tallahassee on a map.
Replied Tampa: "You almost want to backtrack and ask: Who taught these kids?"
Tampa suggested the district should expand school-based decisionmaking, which gives principals flexibility. For example, they could hire a social worker over another assistant principal, he said.
Holly Haggerty, an educational consultant whose company, Community Learning Center, works with troubled youths, said student-teacher ratios are important.
"You really just have to connect with them," Haggerty said of disruptive students.
Gibbs High School junior Keonna Welch, 17, who was invited to sit on the panel, said after the meeting that students need more outlets after school, such as arts and recreational programs.
She suggested another forum, one with a panel made up entirely of students.
Luis Perez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)892-2271.