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Education commissioner gets a LIFT from visit

Florida Education Commissioner Betty Castor came to town Friday to teach a special class of fourth- and fifth-graders at Seminole Elementary School. She painted with the students and talked about the environment. Then it was the pupils' turn to do some teaching. They told Castor about a mangrove swamp. She was impressed.

"This sounds like a college class," Castor said after hearing Justin Blackman, Chad Josselyn and Casey Welch describe the delicate ecosystem of a mangrove area and the importance of its preservation.

The young artists who occupy Room 41 of the 1923 schoolhouse are enrolled in a special Laboratory for Individual Foundation Teaching (LIFT) class. They read at below-average levels, and through testing, they have been identified as potential dropouts. Participation in the program is voluntary.

"Most of them come in here withdrawn and just want to sit and not take part," said their teacher, Mary Castellano. "But in here, there is a teacher and a teacher's aide, so they have two pairs of eyes watching them. They don't get a chance to disappear."

Seminole principal Ruth Ann Reynolds said LIFT students lack the motivation to learn.

"They're not learning-impaired. But their family background or the social scene in which they live is unstable. We give them the enrichment they haven't had," Reynolds said.

Castor's visit was part of the statewide Environmental Education through Art program, in which students from kindergarten through high school learn about the state's natural resources and how to preserve them. The curriculum has been taught in Hillsborough County schools since 1972.

"We now have the resources to put together a comprehensive environmental education plan," Castor said. "I think people are becoming aware that growth causes pressures on our environment. The only way we'll be able to preserve the environment in the long term is if we do it through our youngsters today."

The pupils enjoy the special class. "We go on more field trips. We play games. We have visitors," pupil William Tapia said. "It's always something different to keep things interesting."

Before the lesson, each of the 16 pupils took turns applying brush to canvas with Castor and environmental artist Tom Freeman.

Freeman packed up the unfinished painting of a mangrove swamp teeming with wildlife and promised to return it to the school when he finishes it.

"This has been the most people I've ever had collaborate on a painting with me," Freeman said.