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Teachers draw on expertise of speakers

When the coordinator for the Pinellas County Schools Speakers Bureau couldn't match a teacher request with a speaker recently, she got creative. She sent her own insurance agent to speak to the class.

But with more than 300 speakers and a dozen agencies available to talk on nearly 500 topics, Donna Finnegan said she usually doesn't resort to personal contacts. She usually can match a speaker to any need.

The Speakers Bureau is operated by the Department of Information Services for Pinellas County Schools. Finnegan said it was created about 20 years ago to give teachers an opportunity to enhance their curriculum and to give students additional insights.

"It's a way for students to meet the community and for the community to meet them," she said.

Finnegan compiles a directory of speakers with a brief description and the grade level for which the topic would be appropriate. She sends it to teachers each year so they can get in touch with the speakers to set up presentations.

She said many teachers sit down with the directory at the beginning of the school year and book speakers who match their curricula.

Finnegan asks the teachers to fill out an evaluation form for each speaker, rating his or her overall performance, the suitability of the program and vocabulary to grade level, the speaker's knowledge of the subject and his or her rapport with the students.

Unfortunately, Finnegan said, since the teachers book their own speakers, her office doesn't have data on how many are used.

"If everything goes right, you don't hear from the teachers," she said.

Unless a volunteer is speaking on a sensitive issue, such as drugs, sex or violence, he or she does not have to meet special criteria. Speakers are expected, however, to follow some guidelines. They may not distribute materials that include advertising without prior approval from the School Board. They are prohibited from collecting students' names, addresses or phone numbers for the promotion of a business. They may not advocate a particular religious or political viewpoint.

Before a volunteer can speak on a sensitive topic, he or she must make a presentation to the School Board's Family Life Education Committee.

Finnegan cited several popular presentations offered by the Speakers Bureau, including the Pet Professor Program. Headed by the Pinellas Animal Foundation, it provides hands-on experience with dogs and cats, teaching students basic principles of pet care and how to be responsible pet owners.

Based on data compiled by the Pet Professor Program, it made 15,000 presentations to 36,356 students during the 1999-2000 school year.

Finnegan said other often-requested presenters include Mary Dunham, the "shell lady," who has an extensive collection of shells from the Far East; Ron Brown, a puppet master and the winner of an outstanding school volunteer award; and Lee Allion, a winter resident from Michigan, who performs a magic show for third-graders.

Among the agencies that volunteer with the Speakers Bureau are Family Service Centers, which present programs on anger management, building healthy relationships and eating disorders; the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, which teaches boating safety and water pollution education; and CASA Peacemakers, which speaks on dating and domestic violence.

Anyone interested in volunteering with the Speakers Bureau can contact Finnegan at Pinellas County Schools Information Services, 588-6297.