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GOALS welcomed back at East Lake

Kelly Farina didn't like what she learned four days before the end of school last year.

After stumbling through eighth grade with mostly Ds and Fs, she finally had turned things around when she entered East Lake High School as a freshman in the Graduation Options and Alternatives to Leaving School program, or GOALS.

She made the honor roll, earning all As and one B.

The payoff?

School officials nixed the program, informing Kelly and some 50 classmates of the decision just days before the school year ended. This year, Kelly's grades are comparable to her eighth-grade performance, she said.

"I went from a class of 18 to a class of 27," she said. "I don't have the individual help. I don't have the help I had last year."

But the 15-year-old hopes to improve her standing again next semester.

That's when GOALS returns to East Lake High.

It's returning because the Pinellas County School Board learned about the decision last month. The reaction was quick.

"We said, "You better put it back,' " board member Susan Latvala said. "The board agreed that this is the most absurd thing."

Now officials at East Lake are busy holding meetings and taking surveys with the goal of reinstituting the program in January.

It operates in seven Pinellas high schools besides East Lake, and serves students who have trouble in school because of outside factors such as moving to a new neighborhood or their parents getting divorced, said Dee Walker, administrator for dropout prevention in Pinellas County schools.

Smaller classes and more individual attention from specially trained teachers help students get more out of school, she said.

When Kelly learned of the decision to cancel GOALS, she compiled a petition in protest that most of her classmates signed.

"Our teachers told us four days before school was ending that they weren't going to have the program," she said. "It was so late in the year. I didn't think it was very fair."

Rick Misenti, who is in his first year as East Lake principal, said the program was called off because there weren't enough qualified students in the school.

Moreover, the school lacked proper teacher training programs and didn't have enough trained faculty to fill all the teaching positions, he said.

Last month, Walker suggested that GOALS had not been the highest priority at East Lake. But now she is tired of trying to get to the bottom of the controversy, she said.

"I'm not sure if there is a bottom to this," she said. "I'm spending a lot of unproductive energy trying to say, "Why didn't this work?' when instead we should be asking how we can help these children."

Misenti and his staff say they are excited about recreating the program.

"With the proper training for our teachers, with good, solid parameters, it can be successful," he said.

The principal assembled a committee of students, teachers, parents and administrators to study the GOALS program and customize it for East Lake High School. They surveyed last year's students and are compiling the data.

How will it be different? School officials say it is too early to know.

"We're going to work within the parameters of the GOALS program," Misenti said. "It may have a different name, or not."

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