By Erika Webb
For Hometown News
Linda Costello followed a path rather than a plan when she went back to school and wound up with a master's degree in social work.
Life has taught her that paths lead to plans, and not the other way around.
Another path led to home- schooling and caring for her granddaughter, Skylar, who at 6 years old was in a near-fatal car accident. Skylar was internally decapitated, an injury which usually results in death. Ms. Costello, 63, helped her granddaughter relearn, not only basic life skills, but math skills, which had been erased as a result of her injuries. She homeschooled Skylar in second grade, and enrolled her in public school in third.
Elated by Skylar's progress throughout the year she was homeschooled, Ms. Costello found the public school experience set Skylar back.
"My first goal is for Volusia County to be No. 1 in academic achievement, and there's a simple way to accomplish that," she said. "Currently, St. Johns is number one. We find out what they're doing and we do it better."
St. Johns County School District topped 67 state school districts in a numerical ranking released earlier this year by the Florida Department of Education. The standing is based on each school's total points, derived from FCAT scores. Volusia County ranked 34th.
Ms. Costello said she thinks Volusia can do better.
"If we continue to do what we're doing in the classroom, we'll continue to get mediocre results," she said. "Let's do what's already working someplace else. Somebody smarter than I am already figured it out."
According to the Florida Department of Education website, Florida has the largest state virtual school in the nation.
That is one tool St. Johns County is using that Volusia is not.
"I don't think we have a budget crisis. I think we have a priority crisis," Ms. Costello said.
Offering high praise for an individualized digital learning program in Mooresville, N.C., she said it provides another model for Volusia.
That district's graduation rate was 91 percent in 2011, up from 80 percent in 2008.
On state tests in reading, math and science, an average of 88 percent of students met proficiency standards, compared with 73 percent three years before, according to an article in The New York Times.
"One example of insanity is that we've spent $13 million on curriculum development over the past six years," Ms. Costello said. "It's not about the FCAT; the FCAT is on its way out in 2014. It's about what's going on in the classroom, and I need teachers to help me get government out of the classroom so they can teach."
Using Orange County's Fern Creek Elementary School as an example, Ms. Costello talked about her plan to engage one school, one principal and one community in being the village to raise the children.
In 2011, 84 percent of the kids at Fern Creek were on free or reduced lunch, and 20 percent homeless, yet nearly 90 percent of third graders scored at grade-level or higher on reading tests, with comparable passing rates for math and writing, according to an Orlando Sentinel article.
This achievement, she said, was a result of the principal, teachers and the community pitching in, providing food, clothing and other resources, allowing the children to focus on learning.
"Neither money nor bureaucracies help people. People help people," Ms. Costello said.
Although she has bachelor's degrees in social work and theology, master's degrees in social work and Christian counseling, has counseled hospital and private patients as well as at-risk-families, Ms. Costello lists "stay-at-home mom" at the top of her website resume. She said being "homeschooler" is her "greatest joy."
"I want to help people discover and develop their potential. To that, let me add that I believe there is greatness in every person."
She is married to state Rep. Fred Costello, and they have three children and four grandchildren.
Skylar is now 12 and thriving.
"We live with a miracle every day," Ms. Costello said.