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For Hillsborough mom, school science project turns into crusade

Carson Williams, a third-grader in South Tampa, got a B on his science fair project about dirty drinking water in the schools.

MARLENE SOKOL | Times

Carson Williams, a third-grader in South Tampa, got a B on his science fair project about dirty drinking water in the schools.

TAMPA — Lisa Giles Williams told the teacher, "You don't want me as an enemy," and it wasn't a threat.

It's hard to find a more determined parent, whether the issue is teacher planning days or the loss of angle parking at Dale Mabry Elementary School.

Remember when school cell tower developer Stacy Frank ran for the Legislature? Williams is one of the reasons she lost.

But this time it was personal. Williams' third-grade son did a science project that tested water quality in South Tampa schools.

And the teacher gave him a B.

• • •

Hillsborough County teachers, as in other school districts, assign science projects that can compete in the school and beyond.

For some families, it's a magical bonding time. Parents are involved in the teaching process, which strengthens the school community. That's how Dale Mabry principal Gloria Waite sees it.

Others aren't convinced, said Bob Orlopp, former science supervisor for the Pinellas schools. "People pull their hair out. It ruins holidays."

Now retired, Orlopp is a big proponent of experiments, which are not always practical in a crowded classroom.

"The value of hands-on research is that that's what scientists do," he said. "They learn to control for the effect that one thing has. They learn the value of data. Science is a whole lot more process than it is knowledge. Scientific thinking is not something you can learn in a book."

Opinions vary as to how much the child can do independently.

"It's a parent project," Williams said, surveying her son Carson's instructions. From the multiple trials to the data compilation and double-space typed paper, she said, "There is absolutely no way a child can do this."

Carson, 9, is the middle of three boys, all blond and athletic. He enjoys experiments. "I like the liquid science, when it blows up," he said.

He also likes water, even at breakfast. When his older brother got sick after drinking from a fountain, he said, "I didn't want that to happen to me."

Like a lot of kids, he got help from his mother in choosing his topic. They spent $250 on supplies and set out to test the water at five schools. They omitted Dale Mabry to avoid controversy.

There were problems from the start. Williams said the instructions were confusing.

Then she thought they could enter the schools after hours, without permission, to collect samples. She was wrong. She got a call from the principal. There was talk of trespassing. Williams kept all this from Carson. "I did not need that drama and stress on him," she said.

The experience was not without value. Carson learned about nitrates and nitrites, which are created as waste decomposes. He learned a nice-looking school might not have the best water.

But there were issues with deadlines, and a tense teacher conference. Carson was advised to sample fewer schools. When he dropped a piece of cracker in one of the jars, he had to repeat a trial. He missed a deadline — by a day, Williams said.

The children turned in their project boards and Carson received an 86. He said he wondered, "How can it be, when I did all that effort?"

Williams reacted with a flurry of calls and e-mails to the teachers, the principal, and friends.

She photographed the children's written comments, which showed they were glad when the exercise ended. In the grading rubric, she found no satisfactory explanation for Carson's B.

This is not just about the science project, Williams said. She suspects her son is being shortchanged because the school is crowded and because she is so outspoken about half-days, parking, security and other issues.

Not so, said Waite, the principal. Although it's against school policy to discuss a particular child, she insisted, "All students are treated fairly, and our ultimate goal is for all students to be successful."

• • •

It used to be typical in Hillsborough to hold a science fair every other year. Now, with the support of superintendent MaryEllen Elia, the district encourages yearly events. "We don't want them to lose that momentum," said Shana Tirado, supervisor of elementary science.

There are ways to stop them from descending into madness.

Orlopp avoided giving letter or number grades, particularly to younger children. He would use designations such as "budding scientist" or "beginning scientist," maybe even "struggling scientist," he said. "Anything so nobody goes home in tears."

Hillsborough's website has parent handbooks that spell out the do's and don'ts. In some schools, kids get classroom instruction as early as kindergarten. Many have the option of participating in a class project. There are early morning help sessions.

Sure, a parent might get emotional. "I'm a parent, too," Tirado said. "Do we want what's best for our kids? Absolutely. Do we want our students to do well? That's just part of being a parent."

Williams realizes people might think she is out for attention, but insisted she is in these fights for the sake of the children, and not just her own. "I might be a big mouth, but I'm not getting paid for what I do," she said.

While her activism sometimes embarrasses Carson, he said he is proud of his mom. "She wants to make things better."

For Hillsborough mom, school science project turns into crusade 01/23/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 25, 2011 2:15pm]
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