A delinquent and troublemaker – violent and unteachable.
Those are the words that Eliseo Santana uses to describe himself as a teenager in the early 1970s.
Education: United Electronics Institute, associate degree; Tampa College, bachelor’s degree; Schiller International University, master’s degree in business administration
Occupation: Retired communications maintenance supervisor, Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office
Political Experience: None
He was a ringleader of Hispanic students at his Worcester, Massachusetts, high school, he said, and racial violence was routine.
“By today’s standards, I would have been sent to jail.”
Instead, the school got rid of him by giving him a diploma “a year and a half before I was supposed to graduate.”
He had the reading and writing skills of a third-grader.
“I was not prepared for the real world after high school,” Santana said. “I think what made me so violent was my inability to read and write. I felt inferior and hated myself for it.”
Forty years later, Santana, 57, is a retired professional with a master’s degree, four grown children and 10 grandchildren. But he keenly remembers his struggles.
When he read the Tampa Bay Times’ series on five elementary schools in predominantly black St. Petersburg neighborhoods that had become “Failure Factories,” he said, he “had a flashback to my own hopelessness.”
“I did not want any child to go through what I went through.”
So Santana decided to run for a seat on the Pinellas County School Board, the seven-member agency that ended countywide desegregation efforts in 2007, then reneged on promises to send extra money and resources to schools that quickly became virtually all black.
As the board stood by, standardized test scores at those schools plummeted. Disciplinary problems soared, and veteran teachers fled to more stable, successful schools.
Santana’s opponent in the Nov. 8 election is Carol Cook, one of the board members who cast that vote in 2007.
Although Santana has won the endorsements of the county teachers union and the Times editorial board, Cook, 64, can count on the connections built over 10 years as a teacher, nine years as a PTA leader and 16 years on the School Board.
Cook won 48 percent of the vote in the Aug. 30 primary to 27 percent for Santana and 25 percent for a third candidate. She has raised $27,351 for her campaign, and Santana has raised $23,771.
As a School Board member, Santana said, he would provide overall direction to the school system but leave the particulars to school district employees, especially the teachers.
Teachers “are the ones closest to the children and know what is best for them,” he said. “What I need to do is give them back their voices.”
The board needs to restore incentives for teachers who work in struggling schools, improve the teacher evaluation process, and recognize that a “cookie cutter” approach does not serve children well, he said.
“A teacher’s evaluation is negatively affected if they go against the cookie cutter method,” he said. “When the expert that knows the child best is unable to help because of the bureaucracy of a system, there is a problem that needs to be addressed.”
Santana is running what he and his supporters call a low-budget, grassroots campaign.
His campaign manager, Jon-Paul Rosa, 33, is – like Santana – an Army veteran. He lost a race for the Clearwater City Council in 2013.
“Carol Cook has more money and more connections than Eliseo,” Rosa said. “But we have passion and a hunger for real change in the schools, and I believe Eliseo is the man to do it.”
Santana said that if he could turn his life around, so can some of the children struggling in Pinellas County schools.
With Santana, he said the turnaround started with a girl he met while on leave from the Army in 1978.
Smitten, the young soldier began writing her letters, sometimes several a day. The young man who struggled to read and write bought a dictionary and read it, front to back, to improve his writing.
Ater they married, in June 1979, Santana buckled down. He studied electronics and became a radio specialist in the Army, then began a career in communications at the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
Along the way, he went to school – at night – to earn associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees while becoming a communications maintenance supervisor at the Sheriff’s Office. He retired after 31 years there.
He and his wife, Nereida, have four grown children and 10 grandchildren – all students in the county school system.
“I was 19 and he was 20 when we got married,” she said. “I like to think that it is because of me that Eliseo decided to read the dictionary and go back to school.”
Shawn Avery Speagle is a student journalist attending the University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s Journalism and Mass Communications Department. This story was produced as part of the Media and the Elections class this semester, under the leadership of instructor Robert Hooker.