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Friday, May 25, 2018
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Otto: Bay area schools face similar challenges, on very different paths

Sometimes you read too much into a story without knowing all the facts, which is likely what Iím about to do, but you can help me fill in any blanks. Two area schools you donít hear much about were in the news this week for different reasons, but I believe there is a connection. One is Lacoochee Elementary, which is on the northern border of Pasco County, a few miles out of Dade City. The other is Dover School in the rural cropland west of Plant City. There are similarities. They serve a relatively poor population. The students by and large are on free or reduced-price lunch programs. Many are the children of migrants.
Iíve been impressed with Dover for years. There are actually two schools next to each other. There is the regular elementary and the Willis Peters Exceptional Center, which is named after the late educator who did everything possible to create a great learning environment in a school where the kids often were forced to stay with their parents in the fields or travel with them around the country to work. He raised the standards of the school to be on par with most of Hillsborough County. Faculty members, including national teacher of the year Phoebe Irby, not only focused on attendance, they would go out and get students and support them after class. This week, Kayla English Forcucci was named the new school principal. She grew up in the Dover area and was a student at Dover school. She came back to do her internship at Dover, was a teacher at the school and this fall will become its principal. ďIt is an extraordinary story,Ē says Lynn Dickerson, now retired after 32 years, who taught Forcucci when she was in the third grade. ďI think Mr. Peters must be smiling down from heaven today.Ē It is the continuation of a family spirit that works in this school with its limited resources and often transient population. The other school is Lacoochee. If you havenít been there, itís not surprising. The small town collapsed when the lumber mill shut down a half century ago. The story is the only good thing that ever happened to the school came after an encounter between then-President John F. Kennedy and Lacoocheeís most famous son, former baseball pitcher Jim ďMudcatĒ Grant. After he was told about the lack of anything in the town, JFK sent books and other things to the school. Despite being situated in an impoverished corner of Pasco, the school managed to get high ratings in an admittedly imperfect grading system, at least until the past three years, when the school earned three consecutive ďDĒ scores. The entire faculty is being dismissed. Most can reapply, although math and reading instructors will not be rehired. As usual, it seems to me the wrong people are getting punished. Iíve heard there are good and dedicated teachers at the school. The whole thing reminds me of the heavy-handed sequester going on nationally, where numbers and formulas have superseded common sense and a genuine effort from Pasco administrators to step in and help out.
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