State Sen. Mike Fasano set his jacket aside, strode to the front of the room and introduced himself to the AP psychology students who had gathered to talk with him.
"I'm hoping you will think of some questions to ask me. More important, I hope you have some suggestions about what we can do in Tallahassee," Fasano told the Wiregrass Ranch High School students on Tuesday.
He paused and grinned.
"If you have any criticisms, you can wait until I leave and discuss them among yourselves," he said.
The students laughed. The ice was broken. And for the next 40 minutes, the president pro tem of Florida's Senate discussed education policy with the teenagers who live it daily.
In other classrooms, other members of the Pasco County legislative delegation had similar sessions before heading off to hear agency heads, civic group leaders and other residents make pleas for support during the upcoming session of the Legislature.
"So talk to me," encouraged Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "Tell me what we need to do to change our education system in the state of Florida."
Senior Tina Andrews chimed in first.
"I think teachers should be paid more," she said.
"I agree," said senior Michelle Lockwood. "They do so much for us. They get us basically through school and into college, and they don't get recognized for it enough."
Fasano nodded and said he agreed. He stressed his support for giving local school districts an amount of money and letting School Boards decide how to spend it, whether on salaries or other things.
"What do you think of the FCAT?" he asked next.
"I think it should be harder," answered senior Liz Casey.
Others shared that view, saying class standards aren't always tough enough, and kids in other countries seem to get more rigorous work sooner than students in Florida and the United States do.
Tina took an opposing position, saying that standardized tests force students into categories that don't always apply well. She noted that some of her classmates didn't pass the FCAT reading exam as sophomores, and the state mandated reading recovery course stopped them from taking electives — in some cases AP courses — that would have benefited them more.
Teacher Don Howard offered a question on behalf of students who wanted to know why it has become so difficult to get into Florida's public universities. Fasano used the opportunity to plug the community college system, which he called one of the state's best education values.
Senior Stephanie Vasquez told Fasano she agreed, but pointed to one of his areas of passion — transportation — as a sticking point.
"I want to go to university, where I can live in the dorm. But the cost is so expensive I can't really go," she said. "I was considering community college, but my situation is I don't have transportation, so I can't go."
Fasano encouraged her to investigate what bus service exists, and contact him with the results. Then, he said, his staff could help find solutions for Stephanie and others in her situation.
"We have to make sure they have the ability to get there," he said. "What you said is something we have to look at."
Senior Janae Mason, who quizzed Fasano on the state's spending on public education, walked away impressed that a state senator would take the time to seek student input and answer questions. She hadn't had the chance to talk face-to-face with a high-ranking policymaker before.
"I feel I did get a good conversation. .... He did a good job answering," Janae said. "I was actually pleasantly surprised, because I'm a Democrat. But he did good."
Fasano said school visits mean a lot to him, too, because they help him understand the issues while also giving students an entry into the debate.
"I want them to get engaged in our political system and issues that are going to come before the legislative body this year," he said. "I want to hear what they have to say."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.