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Readers respond to series

We received more than 150 letters in response to the South of Heaven series written by Thomas French and published in May. More than 90 percent of the letters were favorable. Here is the last installment. South of Heaven left me with a palpable feeling of doom. Just the day before, I read in the Times two articles concerning the content and quality of education in foreign countries. The comments of foreign exchange students after a year in American high schools made me embarrassed and ashamed. Perhaps we should just offer to sell our country to Japan or the highest bidder now and avoid the long process of decline that will be our future.

The kids of South of Heaven are going to be such ignorant, infantile, apathetic adults that there is no way this country will survive long when their generation is at its helm.

There was a time when the American people deserved this wonderful and unique piece of real estate. Their resourcefulness, courage, industriousness and vigor gave them a valid claim to this place on the planet. Now perhaps we must concede that our country is in serious decline, and those foreign students who are so willing to work hard and really learn in school ought to have a chance at making what they can of this great land.

Every time I find myself contemplating the reasons and causes of this decline, I come back ultimately to one: the growth of the electronic media and its all-consuming importance in the lives of today's children. For the first time, I believe, we are actually witnessing a generation of kids who have been shaped more by the media than by their parents or even their peers. The kids will buy into any foolish fad that is perpetrated in the right style through television _ Madison Avenue is having the last laugh, and our broken-down educational system simply can't compete.

Gail R. Dibble, Gulfport

With eagerness, I read the South of Heaven series. I graduated in 1987 from a Pinellas County high school and today hold a very firm opinion on the youth emerging from our nation's schools. While there are many students who remain dedicated to education and its end results, these students are overshadowed by others: those lacking motivation, encouragement at home, etc. It is always easier to justify the unmotivated student's actions by pointing the finger at the home situation, but perhaps this is done in error. Ultimately, the student should hold responsibility, for even the grimmest home life often can foster an ambitious human being.

It is no secret that the material possessions of this world beckon some students from their studies; the short-sighted vision sees working for a new material toy better than reading Camus or solving a calculus problem. For many, priorities have become those things which satisfy their limited vision of the future. Education, on the other hand, can be seen as an endless vision for the future. This is not preaching that everyone should attend college, but rather that we should expect more from ourselves.

Eva Konopacka, St. Petersburg

I thought that it was an excellent series; yet I was disgusted with the drop-out rate and the things that went on at Largo High. Reading it really opened my eyes. It's a side of high school I've never seen.

Right now, I'm a sixth grader at St. Cecilia School. The thought of having to go to a high school, now that I've read your series, really worries me. I really hope we can fix up the schools someday.

Amanda Doran, age 12, Belleair Beach

As both a student journalist and a member of the Seminole High School Academic Team, I take offense to "Day 5: The History Lesson" of the South of Heaven series. From my experience as well as from my formal education in the area of journalism, I do not believe that Thomas French took the correct approach in discussing Seminole High School and the members of its Academic Team which, by the way, is the correct terminology countywide for what Mr. French referred to more than once as the "quiz team."

In my years as a student reporter for my high school newspaper, the Hawk Talk, as well as for my city's local newspaper, the Seminole Beacon, I've always been instructed to refrain from editorializing. Journalists, as I've been told, report information factually. The comments made towards Seminole High School in South of Heaven are not all direct quotes; many appear to be written by French himself. Please correct me if I am wrong, but I thought South of Heaven was a portrayal of Largo High School and of its students. French should not have written as much as he did about Seminole High School. During "Day 5: The History Lesson," the focus of the article began to get lost.

Including pictures from a Seminole yearbook was also inappropriate as well as uncalled for. In retrospect, I hope that French would agree that a yearbook photo or perhaps an action shot of Largo's Academic Team would have been more appropriate. I did not appreciate having my picture printed alongside the words, "Why do these Largo quiz kids despise Seminole so much? First, because the Seminole kids are good. Second, because they know that..." I knew that South of Heaven was going to be about Largo, but I never expected it to turn into a battleground for feelings against Seminole to be vented.

For the record, I was not in attendance at the academic meet hosted by Dunedin High School. By picturing the entire team and only singling out Tim Burrows as not one of the "finger flickers," readers were left wondering who exactly was involved. Thus, I have not appreciated the numerous comments made to me in and out of school, all thanks to Tom French, about my alleged participation in the publicized incident.

I have never been overly impressed with the writings of Tom French and South of Heaven certainly has not heightened my opinion. I am truly disappointed in the St. Petersburg Times, a newspaper supposedly rated better than most nationwide.

I close, for the benefit of Mr. Thomas French, with the definition of a coulomb, a tidbit of knowledge which seemed to elude the members of Largo's Academic Team last year.

A coulomb is the unit that measures the quantity of electricity flowing past a section of an electric circuit in one second when the current is one ampere.

The coulomb was named so in honor of the French physicist Charles A. de Coulomb.

Laurie A. Johnson, Seminole High School,

Valedictorian, Class of 1991, Academic Team

Member, 1989-90 and 1990-91 seasons

I congratulate the Times and Thomas French on the series South of Heaven. It represents innovative journalism at its best and provides a focus on vitally important social issues that could not be achieved through conventional reporting.

As the series relates to conditions in the schools, it presents a shocking picture which obviously merits the most serious attention of anyone with an interest in the preservation of the advantages we claim as our way of life. After reading this, one cannot avoid being dismayed by the gap between what is needed and what the present government and the people are willing to provide.

As much as it is about American schools, the series is also about American families. There is the source of the problems of all the young people profiled in the series, and there is where both the prevention and the cure must be based. Again, it is distressing to see evidence of these social problems and to know that neither the present government nor the people are willing to invest in their solutions.

How can journalism approach the remedies? One useful service would be to illuminate the failure of our politicians and our political process to give either leadership or reason for hope in the face of these kinds of deterioration of social fabric.

I hope you will continue to give attention to these issues and to exercise again and again the creative spirit that is obviously behind this remarkable achievement.

Norman Acton, Homosassa

Frankly, your article about high school life scares me. I feel for the average kids who appear to get lost in the shuffle between the so-called smart kids and the special attention paid to the problem kids. I believe that the teen years are difficult enough without having to worry about drug wars, weapons, jobs, clothing, etc.

I personally send my daughter to private school. I believe you get what you pay for. Not only does the private school get a tuition, but it insists on parent involvement hours. My daughter is an average student, but I do notice differences between her and her friends who have continued their education in the public system. I realize that my time and money are well spent.

I don't understand the Florida Lottery. Weekly drawings are made for one enormous prize, when the majority loses due to lack of a good education. If the lottery were revamped to lessen the weekly prize so that more money could be poured into education, then maybe the kids could come up winners, too.

It's seems to me that if we don't improve the school system, each generation will only see it get worse as the standards are lowered year after year.

Mary Grant, Clearwater

I think the whole series is an insult to the teachers and administration in addition to the current and past students at Largo High School.

I would like to express my view to Tom French on his series. Since you are a graduate of a high school, you must know that there are many types of students who make up the student body. To really show "the year in the life of a high school," why didn't you focus on a greater percentage of the students and certainly write more of the good things that the students do for their school and community? Largo High has always brought honor to its community through various activities with its band, madrigal chorus, and many, many student/teacher-sponsored programs. Largo High School has been fortunate that it has always attracted and kept some of the highest caliber teachers in this county. The staff has always been like a family, always coming to the rescue of a fellow teacher or student and his/her family when needed.

I worked at Largo High School from 1970 to 1986 when I took early retirement due to some health problems. I was the secretary in the deans/assistant principals' office so I got to know almost all the students and staff. I have made lifetime friendships, and I loved every day I worked there. If I didn't have the experience of working at one of the best schools in this county, I would be the first to believe that our tax dollars for education are being wasted on the majority of the students and they are not receiving a good education. I would also believe the GOALS Program is a waste of money and should be scrapped. Living in a senior citizen community, I can assure you that most of them feel this way. However, I believe the GOALS program needs to be started in the lower elementary grades, and teachers can do a better job of teaching a child with signs of learning disabilities or emotional/family problems. This way they won't come to high school with so many learning problems and a lack of self-confidence. Children need to be taught very early to like themselves.

Eleanor J. Ganly, Dunedin

I really enjoyed reading the special seven-part mini-series on life at Largo High School. Thomas French should be complimented and commended for his honesty and thoroughness on student life at school, what has attributed to this behavior and how the teachers and staff deal with it all. I graduated from Largo High School in 1964, am currently the president of the alumni association and am totally amazed at the vast amount of similarities of then and now. The school decision makers frequented the patio in '64 as today, non-motivated students perform and act the same now as they did then, and there are still too many parents who don't actively participate in their students' education just as there were then.

In my opinion, the most important facet of Mr. French's mini-series revolves around the untiring efforts of the Largo High School staff to try to motivate and work with all of the students and all of their problems that they bring to school every day. This also occurred in '64.

I am grateful for the education I received at Largo High School in 1964, and know that in years to come the current graduates will feel the same way.

Dr. Edward A. Brown III, Clearwater

Although I graduated from high school 11 years ago in a different state, Tom French's excellent series took me back to a time when I had a different perspective on life and death issues. Matters of death were lengthy research papers (with proper footnoting), complexion problems, the disapproval of peers and a Friday night alone. Things to live for included college acceptance, basketball victories, a car to borrow and catching a wild and wonderful grin from a YY equivalent. South of Heaven was also, however, a reminder that there were plenty of others around who were not lucky enough to share this perspective.

Thanks to Tom French for recording that year at Largo High, for although I wasn't there I can remember every minute.

Ed Panzica, St. Petersburg Beach

Bravo to Thomas French! Never have I read a series reflecting such caring, understanding and yet providing a glimmer of hope for the future.

My sincere respect and sorrow to the school administrators and teachers; their dedication, hard work and efforts are astonishing. Our legislators should read and learn from the series. The future of us all lies in legislative reform to address the crisis in education.

It is frightening to witness the breakdown of the family unit. Surely our children are exhibiting its effect upon them. Unfortunately, there are few courses on parenting. Hopefully, many parents and grandparents will read the series and gain perspective on where their true responsibilities lie.

Such a bittersweet experience this has been for me. Our daughter graduated from Largo High in 1971. She is coming with her family for the 20th year reunion this summer. We were blessed that she did so well at Largo. She went on for her degree at USF and now works with the court in Delta, Colo., assisting abused children. We are proud of her and the educators who touched her life.

The series is in the mail to her with yet another letter from us expressing our love and respect for her life.

My gratitude to Thomas French who somehow justifies my continued volunteer work on civic issues in the county we chose to spend our retirement.

Marjorie Applegate, Homosassa

In regard to the South of Heaven series that has recently been published in the St. Petersburg Times, I would like to commend you on how insightful and expertly written the articles were. Being a student at Tarpon Springs High School, I can relate to how realistic and true to life the series is.

I sincerely hope you continue printing stories such as this because it gets teen-agers reading the newspaper again. It's nice to know somebody cares about us.

Jaime Bielenda, Palm Harbor

I must admit that I began reading the South of Heaven series with a great deal of skepticism. After all, I am a 1990 graduate of a central Florida high school. I am also African-American. Perhaps no one knows the truth better than I. And certainly, no reporter was going to capture and actually print the truth.

However, I commend Thomas French and the entire St. Petersburg Times staff on a job well done. You captured the elitism, separatism and racism that exists in high school today, and you made these concepts true to life through your compassionate representation of the characters. You have given parents a true guide to the reality of what really goes on in high school. Everything from "senioritis" to society's low expectations of blacks was indeed the truth.

Once again, congratulations on a successful and enlightening series.

Erik L. Hall, Homosassa

Congratulations on an excellent series. It scared me, made me laugh, cry and become angrier about education cutbacks.

The fact that there are any teachers amazes me.

I feel two more series should be written _ one on the teachers and what they are made of to want to stay and deal with some of these kids, and another on the parents of these kids and what they feel they did or did not do.

I am a stay-at-home mom with two daughters, ages seven and three. Nothing is more important than these kids and their needs, but that is another series altogether.

I hope that someone sends a copy of this series to President Bush and Gov. Chiles so they may appreciate the way it is in the real world.

Thank you again for the series even though I thought it was too short.

Patrice Borden, Largo

Thomas French could have written a good book, but he ended up with a dime novel!

Bill this series as a study of some types of students (all schools have snob cliques, prom queens, "hot shots" and "GOALS" students), and it's good! But a year in a high school it is not!

Any school personnel could have told him that he was dealing with the froth and not the substance of a school. This "year" is of a small, "newsy" minority. The "school" is the majority of students _ brilliant to dull _ who want an education, have school spirit, enter activities as much as they are able but are not flamboyant. It would have been a truer, if less sensational picture of a school year if some of the majority students had been included.

If it's format you want reactions about, then I can only say it takes a strong story and a suspenseful one to carry a series, and I'm sorry but I didn't feel this story was up to it.

Helen Carlton, St. Petersburg

Hello, Largo High!

The "novel" Mr. Thomas French wrote about you is great! No, it doesn't disparage you as a school. What does it do? It informs the adult world about the challenges that teen-agers encounter daily: challenges regarding scholastic achievement; challenges with peer acceptance; and challenges to handle the emotional energy of the growth process.

Portraying "specific" students is just what Mr. French had to do to capture the readers' attention _ and so he did! The readers' emotional ladder oscillated between hating the kids who are wasting away the gift of education that children in other countries long for; and, at the same time, loving them because they are so much in need of help _ which, by the way, they are getting from the dedicated teachers of Largo High. Also, the readers heave a sigh of relief when they are informed of the high-bracket students who, along with a heavy subject load, are also including Latin and calculus. And, of course, the readers know that the "in-between" students dedicate a lot of time and effort to handling school and life in a demanding society.

A slice of life in a nutshell, that's what Mr. French gave us. But the picture is not of Largo High _ it is of society. In a world of technological advances and the fearful social ills of drugs, alcohol abuse and AIDS, teen-agers need a strong sense of work-ethics as well as social values to come out on top.

According to Mr. French, at least 50 percent of teen-agers will make it to the top!

Congratulations, Largo High!

Leda Saulnier, Ed.D., New Port Richey

Thank you for the excellent series, South of Heaven.

My biggest thought is that "the beginning of learning is the desire to learn." No matter who teaches GOALS or any other program can any objective be achieved unless the student has this desire.

Our federal, state and local governments can spend millions of dollars on education but will achieve nothing unless the desire to learn is within the student.

Ann Swartout, Holiday

Town meeting planned

The St. Petersburg Times will hold a town meeting to discuss the South of Heaven series and the issues it raises at 7 p.m. June 11 at the Tampa Bay Conference Center in Largo. The town meeting will include writer Thomas French and a panel of administrators, teachers and students. The public is cordially invited to attend and participate in the discussion. The conference center is at 6152 126th Ave. N. From U.S. 19, take the 126th Ave. N. exit (a half mile south of Ulmerton Road) and head west one block.