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Program wants to help foster kids find success in school

Ask Montel Richardson where he went to school last year and he'll say Gulf Beaches Elementary in St. Pete Beach.

If pressed, he'll add that it was his second time in third grade, that his first time was at Sandy Lane Elementary in Clearwater.

He's long forgotten where he went to kindergarten, but he remembers that he had to repeat that year, too.

"I keep moving around too much," said Montel, 10. "Right when I get along and the teacher is being nice to me, I have to leave."

That's because Montel and his two brothers have spent much of their short lives in foster care. Their case worker is doing everything she can to find a permanent home for the boys, to give them a chance at a more stable future.

In the meantime, they're among 117 other foster kids who have been thrown a lifeline this summer by a tutoring company with locations in St. Petersburg and throughout the state.

"I believe these kids know a lot more than they realize," said Beverly Buggle, a Pinellas County teacher who works part time for Advanced Learning Centers.

"My goal is to find ways of bringing that information out, giving them that recognition that, 'Oh, I do know this.' "

• • •

Somehow, wires got crossed, and Montel, Dauntarius and Antonio Richardson showed up a day early for the 11-week summer tutoring program. Buggle invited them in anyway and got right to work.

Over the next few sessions, she learned that like most of the kids in the program, the boys struggle with vocabulary and critical thinking skills. On a pretest, they scored lower than 40 percent.

What Buggle and the other tutors were finding didn't surprise Joe Sterensis, who has owned Advanced Learning Centers since 1999. For the past few years, Sterensis has been a state-approved provider offering tutoring for struggling kids under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Only a small percentage of his business comes from private-pay customers. About 80 percent of the children his tutors work with are eligible because they attend high-poverty schools that failed to meet federal standards three years in a row.

The Pinellas and Hillsborough foster kids who signed up for the summer program are more vulnerable than most children because of their unstable home lives, Sterensis said.

"They move around so much they're lucky to have made it through a whole school year in one place," he said. "Yet they come in here like perfect gentlemen and ladies. They're polite. They're grateful."

• • •

Their tutors found they also were eager to learn.

On a Thursday morning two weeks into the program, six students sat around a table strewn with highlighters and freshly sharpened pencils.

Buggle, standing beside a white board covered with instructions for finding the main idea of an essay, directed them to open their FCAT test prep books to a story titled The First-timer.

"What do you think this story is about?" she asked.

"Skydiving," answered 11-year-old Dauntarius, the middle Richardson brother.

"What's the clue?"

"The picture of the parachute."

"Let's see if you're right," Buggle said. She stopped reading aloud a few minutes later and asked, "Is this person happy to be going skydiving?

"He's scared," a student answered.

"Why is he scared?"

"He's scared because it's an old heap of metal that looks older than his grandfather."

Buggle praised the boy for his excellent attention to detail. Years of teaching have taught her the importance of praising struggling kids when they're brave enough to venture an answer.

Half an hour later, the oldest Richardson, 12-year-old Antonio, answered a question incorrectly. Buggle reminded the group:

"If you stumble on a question when you're taking the FCAT, don't let it affect your performance. Just move on."

• • •

Across the hall, the youngest Richardson worked with tutor Maria Juhasz on an FCAT prep story about ships.

Montel was playing the class clown, a role Juhasz knows comes naturally to many foster children because it brings them the attention they crave.

She gently guided him back to the story, asking him how many lifeboats were on the Titanic. His answer came quickly and correctly.

A few minutes later, Juhasz quizzed the students on the meaning of the word "futility."

"Big?" one child guessed.

Juhasz shook her head.

"It means 'had no hope,' " another child said.

"Yes," Juhasz said. "Once the ship began sinking, the people had no hope."

The biggest problem these kids have, Juhasz observes after class, is their limited vocabulary. She suspects it's a result of having limited exposure to reading material in their homes.

"The ability to self-correct is a big help to children" she said. "But they only do that if they've heard the words before."

Still, she says, she's been impressed with the students' maturity and their readiness to offer opinions. She expects to see improvement when they take a post-test the first week of August.

"Hopefully, this dark period in their lives is just temporary," she said.

That's also the hope of Kendall Jones, a case manager with Gulf Coast Community Care who has been working with Montel, Dauntarius and Antonio for almost a year.

The boys had been returned to their parents at one point, but the agency had to step back in and place them once again in a group home. Jones recently placed them in a foster home, where they reportedly have thrived.

"They get frustrated," Jones said. "They have a hard time making friends and feeling comfortable in the classroom. But I have to believe there is a happy ending where they'll be able to lead healthy, productive lives."

The summer tutoring program, Jones said, is a step in the right direction.


More about

foster care

•Children in protective care may be living with parents, foster parents or relatives.

•The main reason why they come into protective care is because they've experienced abuse or neglect in their homes.

•Gulf Coast Community Care oversees about 1,100 children in Pinellas County and about 500 in Hillsborough.

•In the past fiscal year, Gulf Coast has finalized 84 adoptions.

Program wants to help foster kids find success in school 07/05/08 [Last modified: Saturday, July 5, 2008 10:29pm]
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