LEE COUNTY — Throw out your old notions of a motivational speaker.
This was different, though the audience was tougher to please than the average.
On Thursday, motivational speaker Jay Berube visited with a group of 130 Bonita Springs Middle School students to pump them up just in time for Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests, known as FCATs. While Collier County opted for an early start to tests this week, Lee County students in grades three through 11 will begin tests Tuesday that determine, in part, whether they can advance to the next grade.
“What I want to communicate to them is to be able to change the belief systems they may have,” said Berube. “People tell them ‘no’ so many times in their lives.”
His talk was meant to encourage them to get past the pain of being told ‘no,’ and to help them set goals for themselves.
“We want them to do well, but more importantly, we want them to feel good about themselves,” said Principal Ruthie Lohmeyer.
In her first year as principal at Bonita Middle, Lohmeyer is hoping to inspire her students enough to help elevate the school’s test scores from last year’s score of a “B” to an “A” according to Sunshine State standards, after the school received a “C” in 2007. It all falls in line, too, with her goal to make Bonita Middle one of the most requested schools in the county, and fill 700 spots at the school. This year’s enrollment is 659 students, up from 500 last year.
To get the ball rolling, Berube shared with the students a study conducted on fleas that found the little blood-sucking, jumping bugs could spring 20 feet into the air. When a ceiling was placed just a few inches above those fleas, the fleas hit that ceiling over and over. Eventually, Berube said, those fleas quit trying to jump, even when the ceiling was removed.
It was what stuck with 13-year-old Courtney Kyle and 12-year-old Karalee Griffith, both seventh-graders.
“Don’t stop trying,” said Karalee, summing up the message she got from the story.
Berube used the anecdote to encourage the students to set goals, and to continue working toward them no matter how difficult.
“Pass seventh grade, make a lot of money, make more friends, see my family this summer, get better than a ‘D’ in math,” Courtney read from her list.
Lohmeyer said Courtney was picked, along with her peers, to attend the session with Berube because her teachers see in her a bright student who could be working harder to meet those goals.
“I’ve never really thought about it,” said Ed Marin, 13, looking at his list of goals. “It made me think about what I want to do.”
On that list: graduate from high school, become a photographer, become an art teacher, visit Antarctica and major in philosophy.
But first, the students all have to get past the FCAT tests.
On Tuesday, students in grades three through 10 will begin reading and math tests, which continue through March 19. Grades five, eight and 11 will also be tested in science. In February, fourth-, eighth- and 10th-grade students took the FCAT writing test.
Though students like Courtney say the tests do not faze them too much, it was a different story in elementary school, when the tests were a new and frightening concept.
Bonita Springs Middle Vice Principal Bob Scallan knows that phenomenon all too well. Two years ago, when his son, Dylan, was in the third grade, he took his own approach to dealing with the stress of first-time FCAT test-takers. He wrote a book, using his son as the main character.
“It’s about the first day of school,” said Scallan. “He and a classmate misunderstand the teacher. They think FCAT is some terrible creature she’s talking about, so they build a mechanical dog.”
The result was “FCAT and FDOG: A Tale of Two Very Unusual Animals.”
The book has practice problems built in but it is also a work of fictional humor meant to help third-graders deal with the first-time stress of the test.
“It kind of took the edge off about the FCAT,” said Stephanie Cardarella, who taught third grade at Michigan International Academy last year and used the book in her classroom.
“There’s so much fear, I noticed last year,” said Cardarella, now a second grade teacher. “Last year, I was a first-year teacher. There’s anxiety not just on the students’ end, but on the teachers’ end for them to perform well. They want to be able to go on with their peers.”
While students who score a one or two on the tests, out of five, risk not moving on to the next grade, stakes are high for schools as well. Scores determine school-wide grades under the Sunshine State standards, and determine how much money schools get from the state.
On a whole, test scores in Lee County rose last year from the previous year, though they remained slightly below state averages. Schools in the district’s south zone saw a lot of variation in scores in 2008, with some schools making great leaps in certain subjects, while backsliding in others. The district as a whole was graded “B” by the state in 2008, scoring 523 points on an 800-point scale, just two points shy of the 525 points needed to reach an “A.”
To contact Bob Scallan about his book, “FCAT and FDOG,” send e-mails to firstname.lastname@example.org. Scallan will conduct free school visits to discuss his book, which can be purchased from strategicbookpublishing.com/fcat&fdog.html.