A better vision, part 2: Community-based learning systems

Billy note: Over the last few days of the campaign, I’ll be going back through a few key priorities and focusing on how my vision is better and more positive than my incumbent opponent’s.

The organizational focus and structure of Polk County's School District does not meaningfully address its size and diversity. Our communities -- from Haines City to north and south Lakeland to Lake Wales to Fort Meade to Poinciana -- serve different kids and have different needs.

But the School District doses not organize itself around our communities. It organizes itself around the Bartow office. I think that must change -- or we face a future of endless charter conversion battles that no one will win.

Here is the outline of a better future.

1) Treat high schools and the elementaries and middles that flow into them as unified community learning systems. This is what many charter systems do. McKeel and Lake Wales are perfect examples, in different ways. By simply deciding to do this at the district level, we can achieve the localization benefit without the battle that comes with fighting for charter branding. We would move top administrators out of Bartow and into the field, where they would lead community-systems.

We can pilot this in Winter Haven, where I think it's most needed, then replicate it elsewhere. The Northeast of the county probably needs it almost as much, judging from the enrollment chaos surrounding the opening of the new Citrus Ridge school.

Where feeder schools send populations to different places, include them in the high school system in which most of their kids eventually enroll. In addition to better aligning district and school leadership with Polk’s real communities, this will help us bring stigmatized and segregated schools out of isolation. We’ll include them into a coherent learning community, where every principal and teacher has an interest in performance of its fellow schools.

In a coherent learning community, for instance, the district magnet schools will have much less room to drop kids who struggle back into traditional schools. They’ll have to answer to their fellow principals and system leader if they do. During this campaign, the School District allowed a girl to stay at her magnet school after I wrote about its decision to drop her. Pressure — including peer pressure — can work.

2) Engage relentlessly with community-based support and economic development groups. Winter Haven’s Public Education Partnership (PEP) is an outstanding example of this. I love my adopted home town of Lakeland. But we have nothing as organized and committed to school support as PEP in Winter Haven. See link to information here. The community support is there. We need to engage it better on a daily basis than we are now.

3) Make teacher recruitment, support, and environmental stability the top priorities of the learning community. Almost without exception, the schools under the most pressure from the state are those with the kids who have the most personal challenges. That breeds immense leadership and teacher turnover. These kids, above almost all else, need stability and security. Yet, these schools burn through principals and teachers in a way that makes it very difficult to establish a culture. We need to ask experienced, effective teachers from all over the district to come where they’re most needed. And then we need to give them space and time to develop a culture.

4) Focus teacher mentoring and support. I was happy to learn that 2015 Florida Teacher-of-the-Year Christie Bassett is returning to Polk’s schools as part of a grant-funded teacher mentoring program. It’s a good idea; but it has limited resources. In the short-term, we should focus all of those resources on one community ecosystem. These teacher mentors need to be in the schools, supporting and helping. What message would it send to have a Florida Teacher-of-the-Year committed daily to one of those schools threatened with closure?

5) Think about a private school experience and model of instruction — one heavy on experience and enrichment. If the things that make learning joyful — play, exploration, humanity — are good enough for kids at All Saints, why aren’t they good enough for the kids at Denison? Forget vouchers. Just steal the better parts of what private schools do and leave behind the exclusivity. Let’s try creating an environment that treats stigmatized kids in stigmatized schools as human beings. They all have inherent value worth developing as people — not numbers.

6) Evaluate performance at these schools relative to their predicted performance. The state is going to do and require what it does and requires. Fine. We’ll go through the motions for its stupid, pointless, cruel, child-stigmatizing measurements.

Then we’ll evaluate for ourselves which schools are overachieving and which aren’t. We can do this because all research shows a rigid correlation between free and reduced lunch population and median test score. In the past, I found that poorer schools in Polk and elsewhere tended to overachieve prediction and that wealthier schools underachieved. I would like to test that with real statisticians. I want to know who is overachieving and who isn’t.

7) See child development and education as a moral issue for our communities. There’s no magic in those priorities and ideas. But there is a commitment to community ownership. And I hope there is a recognition that the lives of our kids -- particularly those in segregated, stigmatized schools -- are moral obligations for all of us.

The state simply does not share the concern for the 4,000 souls in the schools it threatens to close. They aren’t souls at all to the state DoE; they’re spreadsheet cells and political fodder. Over time, that cynicism has seeped down into our district. Let’s reverse it.