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Readers respond to series

We received more than 150 letters in response to South of Heaven, written by Thomas French and published May 12-15 and May 19-21 in the St. Petersburg Times. Today we print more of these thoughtful, well-written letters. Re: Heathers, May 13.

This is teen-age angst? The story of the four white, upper-middle class "high achievers" needs something more to tug even one of my heartstrings.

I'd like to see the black homecoming queen challenge the safe and happy upper-middle class WASP world where the subject of school newspaper editorials is what type of clothes to wear and where National Honor Society Club presidents believe life is like a movie. (The writer also indulges in this fantasy.) Throw back your crown _ is this really a club of which you want to be a member? How can we admire four young girls whose only claim to fame is that they've jumped through every hoop held out by parents and school administrators?

Despite the headaches and "fits of stress," do these girls really have a hard time succeeding? How difficult is it for a child whose parents participate and encourage their education to succeed academically? How difficult is it for a well-maintained young white girl with upper-middle class mannerisms to get a job at the Belleair Country Club and tolerate people of the same socio-economic class?

These girls are average kids pushed forward by a momentum they had no part in creating: They have the shiny red cars to transport themselves to after-school club meetings and jobs; and they have parents who obtain for them library cards and other resources such as computers to help them in their upward academic climb.

I give my kudos to the black student who succeeds against these odds, but why try to gain entry to this privileged set? I'll bet her own definition of success has more realism.

Isn't there a guidance counselor at Largo High who knows there is much more to life than academic competition and "practical" (i.e., high-income-yielding) career planning?

Marcela Schiller, Oldsmar

We are students in the GOALS program and our opinion is totally different from the one expressed in the article South of Heaven. Your profile of a GOALS student as being a metal head, skater, thrasher, angry and dejected student is right for some, but it certainly does not describe the majority of us. Your description might fit the younger, less mature student, but just like all students, we mature with age.

Almost all of us entered the GOALS program because we had tried dropping out, or we were in risk of dropping out. Yet the current majority of 11th graders at Northeast are ready to graduate next June. We've changed!

Just like the general school population, we too are active in extracurricular activities such as: cheerleading, football, softball, band, Thespians, concert choir and cross country. We are trying very hard to get rid of the uninvolved, unmotivated deadbeat image, and we're afraid your article didn't help us much. Perhaps you could print our letter and come out to visit with some of us at Northeast High. We are proud to be the first graduating class in the GOALS program.

Amber E. Crosby (This letter was also signed

by 24 other 11th graders in GOALS at Northeast

High School), St. Petersburg

I am a GOALS teacher and must correct the negative impression of the GOALS program and GOALS teachers that was presented in the May 15 installment of the series on Largo High.

People who teach in GOALS, such as my colleagues and I, are not doing it because it's "easy" since we have "small classes" and "no homework." We do it because we are committed to helping students who are not unmotivated because they are lazy or don't care, but, usually, because they've come from such terrible home or life circumstances that they often didn't have anyone supporting them with a "good work" or "we're proud of you" in school. We are here not because we don't have to work, but for the challenge and satisfaction of helping kids who have been at times told they'd never graduate and that they were hopeless.

Also, please don't imply that GOALS classes are easy! My students in Economics, American Government and Geography sure wouldn't agree! Certainly there are, in GOALS, as in every department, easy teachers and courses. But my purpose is not only to motivate and encourage, but also to teach, and being "easy" doesn't accomplish this!

Come and talk to some of our graduating seniors who have made Honor Roll and Dean's List for the first time, and who have a much brighter future ahead of them thanks to GOALS. Ask some parents, who have said to me, "Thank you. My child feels good about himself again." That's what GOALS is about!

Barbara A. Pafundi, Social Studies Teacher

and Journalism, PTEC Clearwater GOALS

I am not a frequent reader of your paper, but I read the entire special article, South of Heaven _ A year in the life of a high school. My response is this: never have I read a better advertisement for private Christian schools.

When the public school system kicked God and any form of discipline out the door, it cordially invited an atmosphere such as described in your article. South of Heaven was a perfect title as it implies something a little closer to hell. Are the halls of our schools really filled with such unmotivated, hopeless kids? Do students really use the "f" word to their teachers and get away with it? Do they smoke where smoking is prohibited and no one does anything about it? Are "I don't know" and "I don't care" the only responses teen-agers have anymore? Is Largo High School really that bad? I certainly hope not or I would suggest just closing the doors and forgetting it. If the kids don't care about learning anymore, and the administration doesn't care enough to discipline anymore, then why waste all that money that seems to be so hard to find for education?

I do know there are good teachers and good administrators out there. The question is, are there enough? Is there anyone in the education system who thinks there is still hope for our kids apart from pouring more money into the system?

I really feel for the parents who do not have the choice of sending their kids to Christian schools. Because, you see, there you can still find hope and values and discipline and an eagerness among the students who count it a privilege and a blessing to have the gift of education. I pray our public schools will take the hint.

Diane Moody, Belleair Bluffs

The series South of Heaven by Thomas French is the most insightful, on-target documentation of the modern high school that has ever been printed. It should be required reading for our "education president" and every politician who longs to tinker with the public school system. For the first time they will see that the problems in the schools have root causes in our society.

Competition between schools for scores, advocated by so many ignorant legislators, would destroy the already shredded morale of those heroic teachers who have stayed on the battle lines. Let the reformers look at the broken families, the part-time jobs, the drug culture, the all-pervasive sex and violence in films, pop music, and television, for influences that need changing.

The only possible negative result of this series is that readers will see so vividly the upper and lower ends of the educational spectrum that they may forget the majority of students in the "regular" level category _ those not quite so shocking as the GOALS students, who do not seem to care about passing, and those not quite so stressed-out as the Advanced Placement students, who know their grade point average to the hundredths decimal.

Every high school in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties has these programs, these students, these devoted teachers. As a former English department head who interviewed, hired, and worked with high school teachers for 25 years, I can verify that today's teachers are better trained and better prepared than they have ever been. It is the students who are not.

Our heartfelt thanks to Mr. French and the St. Petersburg Times for "telling it like it is."

Ann Cook, Temple Terrace

Congratulations to the St. Petersburg Times and especially to Tom French. Your series South of Heaven is truly a masterpiece. As a high school teacher in Pinellas County for 17 years, I closely identify with every experience, every problem, every heartache that the Largo teachers lived in this story. I've lived them all, too.

Mr. French received some criticism by Largo students and teachers because of the limited scope of this story and its failure to spend time dealing with the hundreds of other students and dozens of other teachers. This is understandable if only because the Largo High "family" most assuredly wanted an accurate portrayal of their school. Nevertheless, Mr. French has succeeded, through the experiences of a few, in painting the most accurate and most poignant picture of a contemporary Florida high school that I have ever seen. I laughed, cheered and cried as I read.

There certainly is a lot for everyone to think about in regard to our schools, our society and our commitment to our children as we read this series. I anxiously await the responses. I imagine they will cover a wide range of feelings. My sincere hope is that the majority of your readers will have been led to a greater understanding of what today's students are really like and how hard our teachers and schools are working to prepare them for adulthood. I hope readers are comforted by the fact that we have super-achievers like YY in our schools. I also hope that readers are moved to a new level of commitment to support public schools to the degree necessary so that we can successfully motivate and educate the Mike Broomes of the world. The future of the country depends on it, and I know of no other institution we have available to us to positively affect the troubled lives of so many of our children.

The budget crisis we continue to face will not help us achieve these ends. It is ironic that as recently as a few weeks ago, the teachers struggling in this story to meet their students' needs were being asked to accept an additional 30 students a day next year. For now, at least, that won't happen, but schools shouldn't even have to consider such measures. This series should be required reading for all of Florida's taxpayers and certainly for the Legislature.

The most strikingly obvious message contained in the series is the role of the teacher. While the books, the computers and the lab equipment all are needed, it is that teacher-student contact _ that particular magic that only those who have ever taught have felt _ which makes the lights turn on.

On behalf of the thousands of teachers who are members of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association (PCTA), once again, congratulations, Mr. French; you have said it all.

Don Macneale, PCTA president, Largo

I wish I could put into words the thoughts I have about South of Heaven, but mostly Tom French.

I work in GOALS, so I spent many hours with Tom. He portrayed Jaimee and Mike very well. I hope the average person now realizes the stress we, who work with these students, are under. Day in and day out, there are problems that develop with our GOALS family. I know, and I take their problems home with me every day, as do the rest of the teachers in this department.

Not only the students but our teachers experience stressful situations which are difficult to handle. We overcome them and go on.

Tom was able to talk with our students, and they had such confidence in him that he knew all about their secrets _ from alcoholic parents, to abuse, to abortions and unwanted pregnancies. He became one of our GOALS family, sitting in on classes, team meetings or just talking with the students. He learned how we handle the crises that develop over the school year.

You at the St. Petersburg Times should be proud to have Tom French on your staff. He would be an asset to anyone's staff, so the Times is very lucky. I almost lost a son during the year, and Tom called me in Gainesville to see how he was doing and how I was. That's a caring man.

Thank you again for the opportunity to spend a year with Mr. French.

Lois Welch, Seminole

The report, South of Heaven, depicting the plight of our great country's educational system, tells its readers that something is definitely wrong with a very old system. I am not a professional educator but have been exposed to and struggled through several educational institutions. Although I spent 35 successful and rewarding years in medical research while raising and getting our six children through high school and college, I can now see many large gaps in the '90s educational system that may have satisfied the '40s. The breakdown and failure of a key ingredient, "the family and parental commitment," has placed an insurmountable burden on the teachers and schools.

In looking for a new school system that will provide answers and solutions to our nation's problems, I find that our old philosophical approach, "Learn, then earn," leaves a great gap between our basic and applied knowledge. Trade schools, on-the-job training and cooperatives are stop-gap economic measures that do not educate the students.

My idea of a new school at the high school and even college level would be to design functioning departmental areas of interest, similar to graduate school, that are based on our society's problems and pleasures. These could include: health, business, food and fashions, transportation, environment, engineering, education, law, music and art, and sports. A four-year curriculum in any one of these departmental areas would (should and could) cover all the basic high school courses: English, math, chemistry, biology, physics, history, social studies, geography, language, business, as well as electives. Many students entering high school do not have any goal except to make a million the easiest and quickest way. If motivated enough to sign up for business, they would be led not only through local, national and world-wide economics and trade but would learn the problems and current solutions associated with the production, distribution and marketing of products and services. They would learn about the high cost of medical care, insurance and bureaucratic red tape and why there are homeless and hungry in a land of plenty. Hopefully, the students would find ways to reduce their nation's great deficit as well.

Those students interested in wheels should sign up for transportation where they would learn about the wheels of civilization and commerce, from car-pooling to space stations as well as the input and challenges to our world health, economy and environment. Many of the department courses will be coordinated, as the lectures on environmental pollution would also include students in transportation, health, engineering, business, etc. as the various disciplines _ biology, chemistry, physics, math, etc. _ are used to measure, describe and solve this life-threatening problem.

The teaching staff could be selected at various levels from all professions and evaluated on how well they can transmit and apply their knowledge toward the understanding and potential solutions of today's complex problems. The mechanics, technicians, salesmen, firemen, policemen, as well as industrial managers, doctors, congressmen, etc. should be the instructors. Teachers who left another profession frequently enhance their courses with the incorporation of their first-hand knowledge and experiences in the real world.

This new school would bring the students (and teachers) back into the real world and into our democratic society with its freedoms, faults and fallacies. The schools today should be models of a better tomorrow and not just disciplinary institutions that expect and require all students to reach the same degree of scholastic achievement while excluding all civic achievements.

In the real world, South of Heaven, achievement should be measured on what you (can) do and not just on how much you know.

Harold W. Clark, Ph.D., Beverly Hills

Just before sitting down to write to you about the Largo High series, I saw a story in this morning's New York Times about a reunion of the 1941 class of the Bronx High School of Science. Because Pearl Harbor came soon after the graduation, most of the boys fought in World War II, and few of them ever saw each other again until this reunion. All of them seem to have been successful; most are engineers or business executives; one is a professor of physics at Harvard. All the names appear to be Jewish, and I would bet that their families, most of whom were probably East European immigrants, had to make a real sacrifice to give the boys two nickels a day for the subway fare to and from school. The single line in the story that impressed me most was Morris Fried's exclamation when he discovers his old physics teacher, Charles Hellman: "Mr. Hellman! Boy, I remember you. The tests!" After 50 years, Mr. Fried, who must be in his late 60s, does not presume to call his old teacher by his first name, and his most vivid memory is of how hard the tests were. Respect and hard work _ is it any wonder that these boys, whose lives were shaped by the Great Depression and a terrible war, went on to live worthwhile lives?

I cannot think of any book that provides such a convincing and vivid picture of the contemporary American high school and its mediocrity and frivolity. Despite the weaknesses of the institution, the heroes are the teachers. Where do they find the spiritual strength to go on year after year, largely unappreciated, sometimes subjected to vile language, confronted daily with heart-breaking situations?

The students, I suspect, are a cross-section of students everywhere in today's America _ some destined to be tomorrow's leaders, others to be lost in lives of poverty and despair. Every reader was left wondering about the eventual fate of Mike Broome, that most appealing, mixed-up boy.

Why is the American high school failing? The primary reason is the failure of parents to instill good habits in their children. These children are the product of a hedonistic culture _ their parents' culture _ that has been flourishing in this country since the 1960s.

A second reason, I think, for the failure of the American high school is the failure to set and demand high standards of both the intellectually and non-intellectually gifted students. Only a small proportion of students are capable of doing genuinely first-class academic work. These who will provide the leadership of this country in the next century should prepare for the international baccalaureate or a comparable examination.

Third, industry and business should play a much greater role in helping shape the achievement standards for most students _ those in the middle of the Bell curve. There is no shame in being of average intelligence; most people are in this category.

Finally, disadvantaged students need special help long before they reach high school. "Head Start" is a good start, but a continuing program is needed for the elementary and middle school children. Fortunately, the number of disadvantaged students in Pinellas County is small when compared to urban areas. What we need is one or two boarding schools, really camps, starting with first grade and adding a grade each year. Children who attend these schools would be getting a real head start in life.

Thomas S. Jones, Clearwater

What disappointing coverage _ A year in the life of a high school! Why were the majority of the student body not represented? What about their dreams, frustrations and insecurities? Aren't their classrooms overcrowded with too little opportunity for individual attention? Are all of their teachers as dedicated as those you presented in GOALS? Or in Latin IV? Don't large numbers of them balance school and paying jobs? Don't many of them excel and achieve within the high school programs without being named as editor, captain, homecoming queen or valedictorian?

Moreover, in covering a 1989-1990 school year, the reporter makes little or no mention of violence, drugs, campus police, drinking or sex. Cutting class, smoking while seated on school steps and beer at a party seem minor offenses in the light of more serious problems.

The editor of the Times printed: "We believe this series gives a valuable insight into the high schools of today." I don't agree!

Regarding the yearbook without pictures of blacks, Ms. Westfall said, "We've got to do a better job about fairly representing everybody in this school." I agree!

Marjorie Manning, Largo

Thomas French's superb, sensitive, non-judgmental South of Heaven series rang loud and true when compared with my recent teaching experience in a large central New York high school. He captured the essence of today's public high school.

French's observations touched me emotionally as I was reminded that our schools reflect today's families. All is not well. Children need continuous nurturing and guidance. Family values and goals must honor education. Without these basics, other influences will take control.

Successful students usually have learned the importance of work, responsibility and self-reliance in the early years at home. These are modeled and continually supported by the parents. Children who are unloved, ignored and undisciplined face failure in school. They are not prepared to face the demands of learning.

Children need to know that school is meant to be work, not fun. School is their job. As a result of good effort and achievement, children develop self-confidence, sense their potential and gain knowledge. Children need to know there are short-term and long-term awards. These are not bought but earned, unlike the "stuff" of our materialistic society. Children need to know that their parent(s) value learning, teachers and schools.

It is understandable, but disheartening, when the personnel at schools like Largo High School ignore the students' disrespect and lower their standards in order to "hold on" to their students. This compromise happens as a result of the collection of unresolved issues, and it gnaws at a teacher's very being. "I dare you to try and teach me" replaces "I need to know." It has to be suggested that the disrespectful, arrogant, needy students _ even with a diploma _ are not prepared for work, much less life.

Improvements will not take place until parents put their houses in order. Then we can expect schools to be what they should be: places for learning, not rehabilitation. Somehow it doesn't seem the sole responsibility of the schools to teach the parents.

I am impressed with your newspaper and this series in particular. I look forward to the responses of other readers and to the possibility of some movement to produce the needed changes.

Perhaps your newspaper could create a forum like the recent one that featured Jack Payton. I thought the group was well-informed and appreciated the opportunity to hear ideas as well as ask questions. A panel of educators, students, social workers, psychologists and Thomas French: what an interesting evening!

Dee H. Jones, Palm Harbor

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