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Poorly funded schools are struggling to fulfill mission

The kids at Pasco Middle School are locked out of the computer labs this month. Normally, they would get 50 minutes a week at one of the 60 work stations in the school's two labs.

That's 17 school days without a chance for the sixth-, seventh- and eighth- graders to do word processing chores, research science fair projects, write pen pal letters to children at their partner schools in Russia, China and Sweden, or spend some time on Study Island, a popular program that teaches match and science to youngsters who might not appreciate or even realize they're learning because they're having fun.

The computers, incidentally, aren't broken or offline, just booked up with tests. Lots of them. Mid-year assessments on science and math, and a reading test that basically predicts the likelihood of a child passing the FCAT standardized test in the spring. Students do the reading assessment three times a year. That is a lot of instances of unavailable computers at a time that technology is emphasized as an imperative learning tool. The problem will only get worse as the move toward taking the FCAT on-line begins in earnest.

This is not exclusive to Pasco Middle, by the way. Across the county, students at other schools are similar situations. Computerized assessments means reduced learning opportunities. What is needed, said Pasco Middle School principal Kim Anderson, is money specifically for technology. She made her pitch three days ago to Florida's Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith during his afternoon visit with principals from Pasco's public schools.

Anderson isn't thinking about a one-time fix, either. She lobbied for technology to have its own dedicated and sustainable funding source. She was not alone. "Funding'' emerged as the word of the day. Rightly so.

Unfortunately, Smith does not control the purse strings. That is the legislators' role, and none were in attendance because of the special session in Tallahassee. So, Smith lent a sympathetic ear, then delivered the harsh reality. If schools need more money in one area, something else likely will have to be cut.

In other words, don't plan on the kids getting extra hours in that computer lab anytime soon. Additional dollars for teacher training on all the state mandates? Not anticipated, even though, as Staff Development Director Marti Meacher put it, the quality of an instructor is the most important factor in pushing student achievement.

Smith, appointed education commissioner in 2007, acknowledged his tenure is timed, coincidentally, with school funding taking "the straight road south'' because of declining tax collections attributed to the recession and falling real estate values.

Indeed. In Pasco, that has meant no raises for teachers for two consecutive years, freezing administrative positions and a capital spending program that can't afford to properly maintain schools or expedite technology upgrades. Meanwhile, it took federal stimulus money to save 411 jobs, but that $23 million expires in 2011.

But let's face it, Florida's has short-changed education long before the economy tanked. The seven-period school day disappeared a generation ago. Summer school went from a time for students to take an elective to a short-coursed reading boot camps for low achievers. Elementary school bands are gone. Opportunities to play interscholastic sports dwindled. More standardized testing became the norm and so-called bonuses to schools turned derisive over deciding whether to reward underpaid faculty and staff or spend the money on school upgrades.

Principals have less money to run their schools and rely on Coca Cola sales to help the bottom line. Voters demanded smaller class sizes, but the state can't afford to pay for them. Instead, schools get to cheat by calculating classroom averages.

And don't forget the middle school kids shut out of their computer labs.

Thursday afternoon, the first question to Smith came from Watergrass Elementary Principal Scott Mitchell, who wondered about a reliable way to pay for education in Florida. Smith told the school administrators the Legislature is open to ideas to fund education.

He didn't say anything about funding it adequately.

Poorly funded schools are struggling to fulfill mission 12/05/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 5, 2009 1:51pm]

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