Saturday, June 23, 2018
Education

Parent engagement at the heart of District 3 School Board race in Pinellas

Pinellas County School Board member Peggy O'Shea is facing a St. Petersburg professor in her bid for a third term.

O'Shea, 64, says she wants to see through plans the current board has set in motion, such as new career academies, ideas for magnet schools and new programs that target the district's struggling minority students.

Kent Curtis, 47, says the board has made recent turns in the right direction. But as a parent and volunteer at St. Petersburg's Lakewood Elementary, one of the lowest-achieving schools in the state, he says he has detailed plans to address high-need schools.

A professor first at Eckerd College and now at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, Curtis founded the Edible Peace Patch Project, creating school gardens and linking students with college-age mentors at seven Pinellas schools.

He says he believes the School Board could do more to improve parent engagement at its low-performing schools.

"The district acts as if a lack of parental involvement is because parents don't want to be accountable to their kids, but in fact … many of them don't know how to, don't feel welcome in the schools, and are uncertain about what it means to be involved," Curtis said.

When Curtis tried to discuss his experience and insights with school administrators coming in to restructure Lakewood, he says he was met with "polite disdain."

He says an important first step would be for the board to hold a forum, "an airing of grievances," for parents who feel ostracized.

O'Shea, whose own daughters graduated from Palm Harbor University High and Gibbs High, says she has been a strong advocate for parents. "They'll call us with concerns, questions and sometimes frustrations. Being a School Board member is about being available to them, it's knowing how to help them, and new board members don't always know how to help."

In her eight years on the board, O'Shea says she has pushed for career academies, as well as tougher enforcement of attendance policies.

"If they're not in class, that's the first problem, because they can't learn," she said.

If re-elected, she says that, like Curtis, she would focus on schools that year after year post alarmingly low pass rates on state math and reading exams.

Five Pinellas elementary schools, all in St. Petersburg, were among the 25 lowest-achieving schools in the state, according to a recent ranking by reading proficiency on the FCAT.

"We've got to pull that up. You don't want to hold the high-performing kids back, but you've got to bring the low-performing ones up," O'Shea said.

Although the candidates agree on that issue, O'Shea has done less to get the message out.

She has raised $3,600 — by giving to herself. A Largo businessman has given her $500, but otherwise she has not received outside campaign donations.

Curtis has raised more than $10,000, mostly in checks from $5 to $500 from individuals throughout the county. He has spent much of it already, mainly on campaign consulting.

He has garnered endorsements from Pinellas County Commissioners Charlie Justice and Janet Long, as well as St. Petersburg City Council members Karl Nurse, Amy Foster and Steve Kornell.

He also has been endorsed by a dozen downtown Dunedin merchants, the Stonewall Democrats of Pinellas and the Democratic Environmental Caucus of Pinellas.

Some of that support is not surprising, as Curtis is a registered Democrat and lives in St. Petersburg. O'Shea lives in Oldsmar and is a registered Republican.

She has been endorsed by the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.

The two are competing for the District 3 at-large seat, which is chosen by voters countywide.

O'Shea recently was diagnosed with breast cancer, a fact she made public last week, saying she wanted people to know in case she had to miss some campaign events for her health.

"I plan on being as active as I can," she said.

Said Curtis, "My heart and prayers go out to her."

The election is Aug. 26.

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