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Discipline, reforms top school list

Discipline and what Pasco schools do with the state's Blueprint 2000 education reform plan loom as major issues in the races for two School Board seats.

In District 3, Republican Finley Gable Jr. faces longtime incumbent Democrat Dorothy Mitchell. In District 5, Democrat Craig McCart challenges incumbent Republican Kathleen Wolf. Both seats are elected countywide.

Wolf and Mitchell said that they want to stay in office to follow through on classroom reforms, while Gable and McCart said that those reforms ought to be closely monitored and that Pasco schools could be doing a better job.

District 3

Asked his opinion of the Pasco school system, Gable, 53, said: "I believe it leaves a lot to be desired."

A community control officer for the state Department of Corrections, Gable said Pasco schools aren't preparing children for college or work after graduation. He says he sees evidence of that in the troubled kids he deals with.

The curriculum ought to return to "the basics," Gable said. "I don't like people experimenting with my kids."

Gable argued that the district should not "administratively advance" children to the next grade in order to boost their self-esteem if they have not reached a particular standard of achievement. However, he also said that children who are doing poorly in school and then make progress ought to be recognized in order to boost their self-esteem.

Gable questions the use of continuous progress, widely used in Pasco, which does not place arbitrary time frames on a child's learning and progress. Instead, children are allowed to progress at a pace natural for their learning style and ability. In this system, pupils from several traditional grade levels often are combined in a single class.

"What I am concerned about is mediocracy," Gable said, adding that when children are allowed to progress at their own rate, those lacking in motivation might not achieve to their potential.

Although Gable questions portions of Blueprint 2000, he says its reforms are "basically sound programs."

Part of the problem with Pasco schools, Gable said, is that the district needs more state funding. He also believes that Florida public schools overall need more money. He said he believes he could persuade legislators to provide more money for schools. (School funds are apportioned by a state formula.)

A former police officer and Port Richey police chief, Gable cites that experience as evidence he could help kids in trouble. He also knows what it's like to undergo difficult times in the public eye.

Gable was fired from his chief's job in 1985 on various allegations later found by a federal jury to be untrue. The incident did not, however, sour him on public service.

"I'm a people individual," Gable said.

Gable, who lives in Holiday, is married and has two children _ one a Pasco schools graduate and the other a student at Gulf High School. He has a bachelor's degree in criminology from Saint Leo College and associate's degrees in sociology and police science from Fulton-Montgomery Community College in Pennsylvania. He has lived in Florida since 1978.

Incumbent Mitchell, 66, has served on the board for nearly 16 years and said she has seen steady improvement during that time.

Classroom reforms mean that today's Pasco schools differ markedly from those of the past. That makes them an easy target, Mitchell said.

"Everywhere you go, people run down the school system because they say, "That's not the way we did it when I was a kid.'

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Mitchell mostly went to Florida schools, graduating in 1946 from St. Petersburg High School. She attended St. Petersburg Junior College for one year before leaving school to get married. Her grandchildren are getting a much better education than she received, Mitchell said.

She agreed that the classroom reforms "seemed to be so much all at once," but said the School Board and administration have tried to keep teachers from moving forward too quickly. But, she said, many of them want to get going with reforms and have to be pulled back from jumping in before they have enough training.

Besides allowing children to work at their own pace, continuous progress also involves something the Pasco district calls "continuity of caring" in which teams of teachers work for several years with the same group of kids. Mitchell likes that.

"It gives a child a sense of stability," she said, "and so many children don't have that right now" at home.

As proof that the district is on top of discipline problems, she cited the board's decision to open an alternative school and provide other options for kids who get into trouble or otherwise cannot handle a regular school environment.

Besides helping kids, Pasco school reforms have begun to achieve a main goal of Blueprint 2000: local control, including strong parental involvement, Mitchell said. She noted that large numbers of parents are turning out for open house sessions and more than ever are becoming active in the schools.

"People are turning out now to see how their children are doing," Mitchell said, adding, "I'm thrilled that parents are showing an interest in the schools."

Mitchell's detractors accuse her of being a rubber stamp for the administration. That perception might exist because the board seldom has split votes and most often unanimously favors administration recommendations, she said.

Mitchell said that workshops and one-on-one conversations between administrators or staff and board members lead to an informed board. As a result, questions have been answered by the time the board meets.

"They're trying to do a good job," Mitchell said, "and it's pretty hard to vote against them when they're right."

On the matter of an elected or appointed school superintendent, which Pasco voters will decide in a referendum Nov. 8, Mitchell favors an appointed post.

District 5

McCart, 43, admitted that at this point he has "more questions than answers," but said he believes he has to be on the School Board to get the answers he seeks.

The board would benefit, McCart said, from his questioning and from his viewpoint as a non-educator (Wolf has a bachelor's degree in education, has taught in both New York and Pasco public schools and now owns and operates a preschool).

Robert Anderson, who co-wrote the book outlining continuous progress and who works closely with Pasco schools, has called the district a laboratory for his work, and that troubles McCart.

"When I see words like experiment and laboratory, I think it's natural to have reservations," McCart said.

McCart, who has an associate's degree from St. Petersburg Junior College and went to the University of South Florida for a year before leaving to open a floor covering installation business, has been a professional comedian for the past 10 years.

He said he would cut back his busy national touring schedule and is contemplating a different job so that if he is elected he will have more time to devote to the School Board.

He pledged to closely monitor and evaluate classroom changes to make sure they are working. If reforms fail, McCart said, the district could be faced with large numbers of kids who need remedial course work and that, too, bothers him.

The district needs to set criteria for mastering the basics, he said, adding that teachers seem confused about what continuous progress means and many don't understand Blueprint 2000.

At the same time, the teachers have been left to write the curriculum and have been given wide latitude about what and how to teach.

"I believe the district should set some kind of criteria for certain levels a child should reach before being able to go on," he said. "We don't seem to have a specific criteria."

Still, though, he said he is not opposed to Blueprint 2000: "I'm perfectly willing to give Blueprint 2000 a chance."

On the school superintendent referendum, McCart said he has not made up his mind, but is leaning toward an appointed post.

McCart, whose children attend Pasco schools and whose wife is a Pasco teacher, termed the school system "good."

However, he indicated that more could be done to ensure consistent discipline. The code of conduct ought to be enforced, he said, adding that he knows of too many cases in which punishments meted out at the school level are overturned at the district level. This "erodes authority," McCart said.

Wolf, 51, doesn't dispute that. Asked about discipline, she said, "I worry sometimes that we are not consistent enough."

Kids need to know the consequences of their actions, Wolf said, adding that discipline issues are a societal problem reflected in the schools and must be handled as such.

Still, she said, kids push boundaries _ that's part of growing up. And that's the reason the district's code of conduct has new sections addressing derogatory comments and harassment.

"Some of our children," she said, "do not understand what is and isn't acceptable."

Besides being concerned about consistent discipline, Wolf said that the district could have communicated with parents and teachers better when a new grading system was implemented several years ago.

Overall, she likes the changes she sees in school, particularly a more hands-on curriculum that stresses learning by doing and making lessons relevant to real life. Wolf also pointed to increased involvement of parents and community members as a sign that that aspect of Blueprint 2000 is working in Pasco.

Wolf said that if she is re-elected, her priorities will be Blueprint 2000 and continuing to work to increase family and community involvement, as well as to reach the Blueprint 2000's high standards; discipline issues; and how the board can be a role model in environmental issues such as recycling.

She prefers an elected to an appointed school superintendent.

Wolf has been instrumental in pushing the district to be an environmental role model. The district has a progressive recycling program and purchases items made from recyclables. Wolf pushed such concerns to the fore and refused to budge until changes were made.

Her education background remains a plus, particularly with all of the changes, she said.

"I think a lay person can learn," she said, "but there's a whole lot to learn now with education."

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