ST. PETERSBURG — Kent “Kip” Curtis, a University of South Florida St. Petersburg professor and school volunteer, is hoping to take the District 3 at-large school board seat before incumbent Peggy O’Shea can settle in for a third term.
The school board races, which are nonpartisan, will be decided in the Aug. 26 primary. All registered voters may cast ballots in the at-large races.
Curtis, 47, and O’Shea, 64, find a lot to agree on when it comes to the county’s education policies and programs. Both support the school district’s extensive career and technical schools, neither is keen on letting privately owned charter schools take over struggling public schools, and both support later start times for high schools and mandatory daily recess in elementary schools.
But Curtis said the school board needs to place more emphasis on parental involvement in chronically struggling schools, such as Lakewood Elementary in St. Petersburg, where his daughter and son attended. His experience working in low-income schools in South St. Petersburg spurred his bid for the school board, where he thinks incumbents may have become “separated from the day-to-day culture of the schools,” he said.
“One of the greatest challenges with the F schools in the south side is we have a large number of parents who want their kids to succeed, but feel alienated from the school themselves,” Curtis said. “This is a crisis that needs to be addressed in the most creative ways possible. This is where lightning rod attention is going in our school system and people are afraid to move to St. Petersburg because we have all these failing schools.”
One solution may be as simple as requiring parents to check their child’s online grade-recording system three times a week, a minimal amount of involvement that he said “could make a world of difference.” Another is holding public forums at schools where parents are encouraged to offer grievances or suggestions, an idea that has gained support from St. Petersburg City Council members Ken Welch and Amy Foster. Once parents feel they are working together with their child’s school, grades will start to improve, Curtis said.
O’Shea said many of the newest programs put in place will address those issues once they get off the ground. With more breakfast, lunch and dinner served at many low-income schools, as well as myriad after-school programs, the school district is on track toward keeping children in the classroom and creating non-threatening environments for parents to come into the schools and learn to work with their children, she said.
“We hand out laptops to our disadvantaged families, we have our staff members go out and knock on doors to tell parents about programs in place to help their children academically and socially,” O’Shea said. “But as a school board member, one of the best things I think I do, and the thing I really love the most, is taking phone calls from parents and students and helping them get through the system and get the answers they need. When you’ve been on the board a while, you learn what to do and who to talk to, and I feel like my purpose is to use that knowledge to really help people.”
Now that the school district has found stable leadership in Superintendent Michael Grego, board members have put more programs in place to meet these daily challenges, O’Shea said. Programs like ”Promise Time” after-school tutoring and the Summer Bridge program help students make up course credits or get extra help in reading and math. This month, the school district opened the long-awaited Lew Williams Early Childhood Learning Center in St. Petersburg, which will start preparing low-income students as young as a year old to enter schools ahead of the curve, O’Shea said.
“It’s programs like this that we need to continue to try,” O’Shea said.
O’Shea was elected to the school board in 2006, and one of her biggest campaign points was the need for more career education. Since then she has served as vice chairwoman of the board two school years and chairwoman for one. She said she has been instrumental in revising attendance policies on the high school level, ensuring the school district has a social media presence to interact with parents, and lobbying the state legislature, which has resulted in more funding for the schools. But the growth of magnet and charter programs in the county may have the longest lasting impact.
Yet more Pinellas schools are being ranked among the worst in the nation, Curtis said.
“We have thousands of kids entering schools next week where they know they’re failing schools. What does that do to a child’s morale?” Curtis said. “My daughter got a great education at an F school, but I also know my daughter is going back to an F school on Monday and she and her friends are like, ‘What’s wrong with us?’”
O’Shea has been battling a recent breast cancer diagnosis, managing to fulfill school board duties by attending or Skyping into meetings in between chemotherapy treatments. O’Shea said she wants voters to know about her diagnosis if she can’t make campaign appearances, such as a forum with the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club last week.