Monday, December 18, 2017
Education

Gov. Rick Scott's veto threatens Pinellas school math program

ST. PETERSBURG — A $2 million snub from the governor's office could threaten a program helping more than 2,500 Pinellas County middle school students learn algebra.

SunBay Digital Mathematics, a technology-based education program at 11 Pinellas County schools, will remain intact for now, thanks to grant money and outside funding.

But Gov. Rick Scott's veto of money aimed at expanding the program and building a hub for science, math and technology projects has left organizers scrambling.

"We're trying to put Band-Aids on the situation," said Dennis Beatrice, a vice president for Silicon Valley-based research institute SRI International, which has a marine technology division in St. Petersburg. "We're trying to keep it on life support."

That might mean pulling their efforts out of Florida and growing a center in another state such as Texas, where a math effort akin to SunBay also was launched. That could doom the Florida math program unless it found alternate means of support and funding.

Middle school students enrolled in the SunBay program use computer programs and games that teach math concepts in real-world terms.

Students who participated in the program showed marked improvement in their understanding of math and performed better on diagnostic tests than nonparticipants, according to a USF St. Petersburg study that tracked participants since the program's 2009 launch.

But SunBay is still a pilot. It was always meant to grow. The veto makes this difficult, if not impossible, Beatrice said.

"There'll be no expansion, and what's there now — it's just not complete," he said. "I don't know how free-standing and permanent it is. I don't know what the school district will do. It puts the whole program in jeopardy."

Originally, the program was to be implemented in all Pinellas County middle schools by 2015. After that, organizers had planned to take it to other school districts throughout Florida, using Pinellas County as a model.

The Center for Digital Learning, the proposed hub for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) research which originally requested $10 million from the state, would have facilitated that growth. It also would have pursued projects and grants from around the country, officials said.

"The fact that we have evidence that this is having an impact on students and that it's changing how teachers teach mathematics — it's really extraordinarily powerful," said education professor Vivian Fueyo, the former founding dean of USF St. Petersburg's College of Education.

State legislators this year ultimately granted the program $2 million to continue its work and expand SunBay throughout Pinellas County.

But the governor wasn't sold.

"This is taxpayer money, this isn't his money," said spokesman Lane Wright. "We never received enough information on how this would provide a good return on investment for taxpayers."

Scott also had reservations about the project because it was not vetted by the state's Department of Education, Wright said.

In a letter to Secretary of State Ken Detzner outlining this year's vetoes, Scott said he supports projects that are "student focused and have measurable results."

Center organizers were disappointed by the veto, saying it deviates from the governor's stated commitment to STEM education.

"I honestly have a hard time imagining how the governor could not see the benefit of this program," Beatrice said. "It works."

SunBay has sought help in a grant from the National Science Foundation, but grants are temporary and difficult to count on, program officials said.

"If that grant does not go through, there will be an absolute issue," said Laurel Rotter, Pinellas County Schools mathematics supervisor for kindergarten through eighth grades. "The funding just won't be there."

Private funding options have been all but exhausted and significant grant money is not easy to obtain for such a local program, officials said. The hope is that the state will reconsider and find ways to support the program in the future.

If it doesn't, Beatrice said, SRI International may look to move the center elsewhere.

"Florida was our first choice," he said. "But frankly, we have to decide whether we want to keep taking swings in Florida or accept this verdict and move on."

Marissa Lang can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386.

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