A long look at F.AS.T.’s Nehemiah Action Assembly

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I arrived at Indian Rocks Baptist Church last night as a lone face in a sea of more than 3,000 members of the Faith and Action for Strength Together (FAST) Nehemiah Action Assembly. They were on a mission.

At first, I was blown away by the sheer volume of people of mixed denominations, races and backgrounds who were all friendly, organized and comfortably seated in the large sanctuary. Second, what hit me was the laser-like focus of the group on three core issues: 1) jobs; 2) education; and 3) drugs and crime. And they demanded to know if elected officials in their community would commit to supporting specific proposed solutions.

Jobs

Pinellas is experiencing a more than 10 percent unemployment rate, which is almost 2 percent over the national average. Adding insult to injury, many persons with even nonviolent misdemeanors in their background, such as driving without a license, often find jobs hard to get due to employers who discriminate against this type of criminal history.

FAST asked St. Petersburg City Council members present if they would support a “priority hiring ordinance” for the City of St. Petersburg. There were three parts to FAST’s request, “Will you support a priority hiring ordinance for the City of St. Petersburg, which includes the following: 1) A set percentage benchmark for Pinellas County residents to be hired; 2) Provisions for encouraging companies to hire “hard to hire” individuals including the long-term unemployed and ex-offenders; and 3) Imapct all city contracts of $2 million and above?

Council members Charles Gerdes, Karl Nurse, Wengey Newton and Jeff Danner each voted yes to each specification. Councilman Steve Cornell submitted a letter noting his yes vote for all specifications. Newton said of the proposed solution, “jobs don’t solve everything, but they sure make everything better.” Gerdes added that he recommends a sliding scale benchmark and to include city funded projects with $500,000 budgets to expand the effectiveness of the ordinance.

Education

Too many Pinellas County children cannot read at grade level. FAST identified 20 elementary schools with significantly low reading levels, and these schools also have a high percentage of low-income and minority students. “Poverty is no excuse for children not to be able to read. All children can learn to read,” asserts the FAST Education Committee Report.

FAST is proposing a solution. The Education Committee has researched “Direct Instruction” (DI) a research-based approach to teaching—particularly reading—as a core curriculum. According to the Education Consumers Foundation, “More than 100 studies and meta-analyses… have confirmed that DI accelerates learning in children from all backgrounds, raises graduation rates and college attendance rates and reduces grade retention, discipline problems and referrals to special education.”

All Pinellas County School Board members represented last night at FAST voted “no” to implementing DI as a core curriculum in the 20 failing schools identified. They also voted “no” to implementing them in 15 of these schools. Only School Board Member Janet Clark supported to implementing DI as a core curriculum in one of these failing schools as a pilot program. Glen Gilzean was apprehensive in supporting this without meeting the consulting organization, National Institute for Direct Instruction (NIFDI), that would be bringing DI to the classrooms, but he did commit to motioning that the Pinellas County School Board meet with the NIFDI.

Both school board members Linda Lerner and Robin Wilke flatly turned down even considering implementing DI in even one school as a core curriculum. In part they argue that it is being implemented as parts of the curriculum are offered as an intervention program to some students. However, DI was not designed to be an intervention program or to be used in parts.

To adhere to fidelity of this science-based practice, the full curriculum is to be used in its entirety as a core curriculum. There is little wonder why the outcomes have failed to make an impression on educators with this strangely modified implementation in Pinellas.

Furthermore, Lerner proclaimed, “I will not yield to pressure, and that is leadership,” as she refused to consider DI as a solution.

My take: If the Pinellas County School Board members do not support implementing DI, a research-based approach to teaching—particularly reading—as a core curriculum, then they need to propose another robust, drastic solution versus calling themselves “leaders” for shooting down the curriculum that could evidently have a significant positive impact on the 20 failing schools in Pinellas County.

These schools have far too many kids reading far below grade level and failing. If the School Board doesn’t DI then they have a responsibility to recommend an alternative evidence-based/science-based practice that could be used as a core curriculum to address the inexcusable problem of illiteracy among Pinellas County youth. Business as usual is a failing formula and this clearly is not leadership.

Local education facts: too many youth cannot read, and we are failing them

The Schott Foundation for Public Education rated Pinellas County worst in the nation for graduating black males. According to its 2010 report, only 21 percent of black males graduate in Pinellas with a standard diploma, and white males didn’t demonstrate a huge success with only a 50 percent graduation rate.

Literacy is targeted as a primary cause for low student performance. FAST reports that “Only 9 percent of the students at Gibbs High School in the non-magnet programs read at grade level. Likewise, the majority of Pinellas County elementary schools, 59 percent, fail to meet minimal state standards, which requires that only 79 percent of students read at grade level.

Drugs and crime

But, let us end on a positive note, please. The re-arrest rate in Pinellas County is at 70 percent—a percentage that has been on a marked rise since in-jail substance abuse programs were cut last fall due to lack of funding. Furthermore, in-jail substance abuse treatment has been estimated to save communities upwards of a half million dollars annually in costs associated with recidivism and drug-related crimes. The success rate reported by FAST also is remarkably high, stating that, “Offenders who begin a program in jail have a 90 percent chance of successfully completing a post-jail program.”

Budgets have been cut from federal, state and local budgets, leaving very little funding from usual sources to fund an in-jail treatment program, and this fact has not gone unnoticed. However, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office could use its own budget, which also has been reduced in recent history, to fund such a program. It is estimated that this would cost a mere 0.03 percent of the full operating budget to implement.

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said, “yes.” He commits to reinstating an in-jail substance abuse treatment program on the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office dime. Gualtieri said that he has been working with local substance abuse providers Operation PAR and WestCare Florida to do this as inexpensively yet as effectively as possible and is hoping to launch this new program within the 2011 – 2012 fiscal year.

What is better news? Each registered candidate running in the upcoming Pinellas County Sheriff election also has committed to including a line item in the Sheriff’s Department budget to fund in-jail substance abuse treatment.

“Sheriff Gualtieri seems truly committed to reducing recidivism of jail inmates and saving tax payers dollars. The research is very clear that when inmates, male or female, receive any treatment within the institution they are far less likely to recidivate. This saves not only tax payers’ dollars but improves the families who make up our communities,” said Nancy Hamilton, president and CEO of Operation PAR, Inc., Pinellas County’s largest and most comprehensive substance abuse service provider.

Hamilton continued, “When men and women get out of the institutions and stay out and seek a life of recovery and stability, our communities are safer for everyone.  It is very smart for all candidates to include such a commitment in their agendas for 2012-2013. Operation PAR is supportive of all efforts to increase treatment in our jails and prisons.”

(Full disclosure—Daphne Street is a former grant writer for Operation PAR.)

By Daphne Taylor Street, city and county correspondent. You may contact Daphne at dts.streetmedia@gmail.com.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.