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History fair was unfair, teen says

Jack Irvine researched, wrote and practiced for seven months.

For hours a day, six days a week he worked on crafting props for his history project on the American Revolution.

The 13-year-old had his sights set on competing in the Pinellas County History Fair and possibly heading to state.

At first, prospects looked good.

He won his school-level competition at Safety Harbor Middle. Then, at the March 10 county competition he got to the final round.

But when he got to the assigned room at University of South Florida St. Petersburg, things didn't go as he'd planned.

A judge, he says, reprimanded his parents for helping him carry some of the props down steep steps. He felt rushed and unsettled, but he tried to get through his presentation.

"I was just really stressed and it felt like a thousand degrees up there," he said.

But he finished.

He placed last among four finalists in his category. It was what it was.

"This is not about winning or losing," he said.

But then he learned something that made him feel cheated: the judge who he had reprimanded him was the wife of the history fair organizer, Alan Kay, a well-respected teacher at East Lake High. He learned that the Kays have a daughter at Dunedin Highlands Middle School, where the first-place winner in his category attended school.

And then he heard that the judge, Heidi Kay, is friends with the student she helped judge the winner.

That's when Jack's parents decided to appeal.

They met with Linda Whitley, the supervisor of social studies for Pinellas County schools, who referred the matter to the KC Smith, the Florida History Fair coordinator for the Museum of Florida History.

"In my opinion, she should not have been judging this category in the first place because of an inherent conflict of interest," Smith wrote Whitley in an email on Monday. "One of the entries being judged was from the middle school that Mrs. Kay's daughter attends. She should not have been allowed to judge any junior division category because the potential for bias, or even the perception of bias, was simply too great."

Despite that, Smith wrote, the outcome will stand. She determined after speaking to all three judges that their decision "ultimately was based on each judge's belief that some entries were stronger than others."

Kay, a former teacher of the year, declined to talk about the incident with the Tampa Bay Times. But, in an email to Jack's mother, Kay dismissed the notion that there was any conflict of interest there, calling his wife's "commitment to fairness above reproach."

In addition, Kay noted that the winner's family are generally well-known because they are long-time supporters of the annual history fair competition. He did not respond to an email request to speak to his wife.

At first, a disheartened Jack wanted to ask organizers allow all four contestants the chance to perform again before another panel of judges. A do-over. But after thinking about it more, he said, he wasn't sure he had it in him to perform again.

He just wanted "to make sure this doesn't happen again," he said.

So Jack went to school on Tuesday and collected 70 signatures from his classmates. Then, he went to the Pinellas School Board meeting Tuesday night, told them his story and what he learned.

"My geography teachers, Mrs. Candes Clifford, has taught us that it's not just our job to learn about injustices," Jack said. "It's our responsibility to speak up and change things to make them right for others."

Eliminate the National History Day projects from the school curriculum, he told the board. Make it an extracurricular activity. "If Mr. Kay can't guarantee that judging will be fair, we don't want to compete."

And investigate the county competition, he continued: "Make clear changes to the program so that this never happens again to another kid like me."

Board members didn't respond other than to thank Jack for speaking to them. Superintendent John Stewart said it was the first he'd heard about the incident.

Deputy superintendent Jim Madden, who was seated next to Stewart, said the incident was "unfortunate" given all the great stories that come out of the history competition each year.

"The hope is that everyone learns from this," Madden said.

Staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or rcatalanello@tampabay.com.

History fair was unfair, teen says 03/21/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 2:26pm]
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