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City pledges in-school suspension aid

Barbara Thornton came to Tuesday night's City Commission meeting hoping to cause a change of heart.

Last month, the Largo High School principal had learned that the city would not contribute $20,000 to a program in which students who were to be suspended from school are kept in a classroom and taught by a teacher instead of being sent home.

On Tuesday, Thornton told commissioners the program was really working.

Suspensions dropped dramatically from 1,112 during the 1997-98 school year to 269 for the school year that ended this spring, she told them. The grades of some students rose from D's and F's to A's and B's.

Persuaded by her arguments, several commissioners said they would make sure there is money in the budget for the program.

"I'd like for us to see how we can retain it," said Commissioner Marty Shelby.

"I'd like to see us address this during the budget process in whatever way we can," said Commissioner Pat Gerard.

A relieved Thornton thanked the commissioners for their support after the meeting.

"I'm very pleased," she said.

City officials have never disputed the merits or the success of the program. At issue was, and still is, the fact that the city supplies one-half of the funding.

"Essentially, it's costing us money we can use for something else," said Mayor Bob Jackson.

Largo's interest in the On-Campus Intervention Program came after Shelby heard how well it was working at Clearwater High School and discussed it with Thornton. The program kept kids off the streets and out of trouble during their suspensions. A counselor was also available to help guide the student through any personal problems or refer them to social service providers.

"The strength of this program is not just the teachers," said Thornton. "It is also the counselor who works with them about why they are getting into these problems."

Although the Pinellas County School Board pays for half of the teacher's salary, the school must come up with the other half of the funds.

When city commissioners passed a measure to give Largo High School money for the program, they made it clear this would not be a long-term financial commitment. Last fall, city commissioners agreed to continue to pay for half of the teacher's salary, but they sent a resolution to the School Board urging them to pick up the entire cost for the program.

School Board officials did not respond to the resolution. Instead, they sent it to Thornton.

"That's very heartening," said Shelby, with sarcasm in his voice.

Thornton was unable to find any other funding sources. She said she had no other option but to ask the city to give the money again.

State Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, has proposed legislation each of the past two years to get the Legislature to provide about $1-million for the program in Pinellas County. Thus far, his efforts have been unsuccessful. However, Farkas said he will try again during the next legislative session.

"I know we'll get there eventually," he said. "It's just a matter of time."

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