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Governor drops in on truant girl's mom

Bush insists on meeting the woman during a tour of the state's first failing schools.

While touring the state's two worst-performing schools Friday, Gov. Jeb Bush learned of a kindergartener who had missed the first four weeks of class.

Turning to Dixon Elementary School principal Judith Ladner, Bush said: "We're going to go."

They drove to the child's home, where they found the girl with her pregnant mother and four younger siblings, including a baby brother, Ladner said. Bush stood in the door while Ladner, making her fifth visit to the home, spoke with the mother.

"He held the baby and kissed him, and told her he wished her the best of luck," Ladner said. "He made her promise that the child will be in school Monday. And she said "I promise.' "

On her first visit to the home, Ladner said she was told the child was not in school because she didn't have the proper shots.

"I offered my services to get the shots when she first told me there was a problem," said Ladner. "And I've been given five different reasons why the kindergartener is not here yet."

Bush visited Dixon and Spencer Bibbs Advanced Learning Academy, a technology-oriented elementary magnet school, both in Pensacola. They are the first failing schools where students qualify for the state's new tuition vouchers to attend private schools at public expense.

It is the first statewide voucher program in the nation. So far only Bibbs and Dixon students qualify because their schools are the only ones that have scored below a state minimum on assessment tests for two years in a row.

Bush said the situation at the truant kindergartener's home is one reason why his A+ education reform plan has been his top priority.

"I wanted that mom to know that it's important to have your kids at school," he said. "They can't learn if they're not. I think she got the message and that child will be at school on Monday."

Bush said problems such as poverty and truancy are not unique to Bibbs and Dixon.

"This sadly exists all across our state and which is why the A+ Plan and its implications of high standards for all children is so important," Bush said.

The governor toured classrooms at both schools, chatting amiably with students, teachers and parents. At Bibbs he visited children as they ate lunch and did an interview at the school's television studio.

"I wanted him to see that this is not that blackboard jungle that people who come here think it is," said Ladner, who had invited the governor. "The teachers have been demoralized a lot by all of this."

She said she wanted Bush to see the teachers are doing many good things and that his visit boosted their morale.

Mary E. Smith, the parent of two former Dixon students who have vouchers to attend a Roman Catholic school, went to Dixon to see Bush. She told him she supported the voucher plan but urged more money be spent to help low-performing schools.

Bush said the state has increased school spending across Florida by $1-billion this year and that low-performing schools are getting more resources, such as reading grants and extended school years. Dixon and Bibbs have increased their calendars from 180 to 210 classroom days a year.

Escambia County school officials Thursday confirmed the two schools will be getting money to hire tutors and teachers' aides, reversing an earlier claim the state had failed to provide sufficient dollars.