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Fairmount Park Elementary Children's Initiative coordinator resigns amid inquiry

ST. PETERSBURG — The man who oversaw a pilot Pinellas school program modeled after New York's popular Harlem Children's Zone project resigned amid an investigation into his handling of financial and enrollment matters, records show.

Javontae Wright, 28, coordinator for Fairmount Park Elementary's Children's Initiative, resigned on June 16, the day after the district launched an inquiry and placed him on administrative leave.

Wright declined to talk in detail about the matter, but he called his resignation "the right thing to do." He said that although he is pursuing another career path, he plans to stay involved in the community.

"There are no hard feelings from me to the School Board," he said.

Farimount's Children's Initiative was launched this past school year with 72 children and a promise to help struggling families navigate the life issues that might otherwise detract from their ability to help their children succeed academically.

According to the investigation made public Thursday:

• A grandmother told an administrator that she paid Wright a $75 fee to enroll her grandchild in the program, which is free. When questioned, Wright said the money had nothing to do with the initiative, according to the report.

• Wright requested $92.77 reimbursement from the district for a buttercream sheet cake and ice cream, which was paid for with food stamps. When confronted, according to the report, Wright said he didn't mean to submit the receipt, which appeared to be altered.

• Ten students, all too old to be eligible, were enrolled in the Children's Initiative summer program. The slots were designated for students ages 4 and 5. When the error was discovered, the students were reassigned to a separate summer program, according to Valerie Brimm, Wright's supervisor.

She said none of the allegations called for a criminal investigation.

In 2007, three months before being hired by the school district, Wright was featured in the St. Petersburg Times' "Paycheck to Paycheck" series, which highlighted his struggle to make ends meet as a single parent.

Before joining Fairmount, he coordinated the school district's 5000 Role Models of Excellence program. Personnel records show he was reprimanded for repeated tardiness, absenteeism and "failure to call or document absences."

In May 2010, according to a letter Brimm wrote, Wright promised to arrange transportation for 250 students to attend a Black Coaches Association event, which St. Petersburg's mayor and several leaders from the Tampa Bay Rays and other organizations were attending. But only five students showed, all brought by a Lakewood High assistant principal. Wright did not attend either.

Brimm, director of strategic partnerships for the school district, said Thursday that she thought many of Wright's problems in the 5000 Role Models job stemmed from his having to split his time between several schools.

Wright has since been replaced by Amanda Dryden, who taught first-graders during the Children's Initiative's inaugural year.

Brimm said initial data on the pilot program indicate that students from kindergarten through second grade showed across-the-board improvement in reading and math, especially when compared to their peers from similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

School grades released last week showed Fairmount going from an F-rated school to a D school. "Changing of leadership had no impact on what was produced," Brimm said.

The Children's Initiative plans to expand to 108 students in the fall, including a new 18-member class of 3- and 4-year-olds.

The Harlem Children's Zone program began in the early 1990s and targeted children and families in one New York City block. The effort focused on providing families with services that could reduce the obstacles poverty presents: failing schools, crumbling housing, violent crime and health issues. By 2001, the project had expanded to 100 blocks serving more than 8,000 children and 6,000 adults. Today, it starts with the Baby College, a series of parent workshops for kids up to age 3.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or rcatalanello@sptimes.com.

Fairmount Park Elementary Children's Initiative coordinator resigns amid inquiry 07/02/11 [Last modified: Saturday, July 2, 2011 4:31am]
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