LARGO — A majority of Pinellas County School Board members refused Monday to cave in to pressure from a faith-based alliance to adopt a program that the group's members say would improve reading instruction for struggling elementary students.
"I will not yield to pressure," School Board member Linda Lerner told an audience of about 3,000 members of Faith and Action for Strength Together.
FAST, an alliance of 38 churches, synagogues and mosques, was founded in 2004 as a way for congregations to tackle issues facing the community. FAST has become known for holding elected officials' feet to the fire by having them appear at a group meeting and provide "yes" or "no" answers to questions about issues facing the community and about FAST's solutions to those problems.
On Monday, FAST had questions for St. Petersburg city leaders and the sheriff, as well as the School Board. Some of those questions centered on whether St. Petersburg City Council members supported a hiring ordinance that would require the city to set aside a certain percentage of jobs for Pinellas County residents. Other questions focused on whether Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri would commit to provide funding for an in-jail rehabilitation program.
But the big issue of the evening concerned the Pinellas school system, which FAST members say is failing the county's poorest children.
FAST members believe the district should adopt a teaching strategy called "direct instruction." That method, they say, is proven to improve reading scores for all children. The concept uses highly prescribed lessons and intense review designed to ensure that students master concepts as they go.
They asked School Board members to commit to adopting direct instruction as the core method in 20 of the district's schools that have the lowest reading scores.
But Lerner and three other board members — Robin Wikle, Janet Clark and Glenton Gilzean Jr. — declined.
Wikle and Lerner refused to support the adoption of direct instruction as a core teaching method in even one school. Clark said she could consider adopting it in one school as a test to measure its success. Even so, Clark doubted that direct instruction would be the ultimate solution.
"I don't think there are any silver bullets that would solve our problems," she said.
Gilzean said he did not want to adopt it without knowing more about the National Institute for Direct Instruction, the organization that FAST says would provide training and guidance in implementing the program. Gilzean also said he believed that, should the method be adopted, it should be at the preschool level.
Lerner said that in making her decision, she had talked with teachers, principals and others. Direct instruction, she said, could be used as a supplemental curriculum, but not as the core method.
Leadership, she said, is about making decisions using all available information.
But Joe Magri, a member of the FAST education committee, said that direct instruction does not work as a supplemental program. If used as the core method, he said, it is successful with all types of students.
Reach Anne Lindberg at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.