A Bok-McLaughlin vision, part 1: the future of Lake Wales should be Lake Wales. Not Jefferson County.

I still sincerely believe we can make a deal that unites the Lake Wales middle-school age community. But I'm less optimistic than I was a couple weeks ago.

I'm very troubled to learn that Lake Wales Charter Schools wants to take over the Jefferson County schools. Jefferson County is a tiny rural county near Tallahassee. It is 280 miles away from Lake Wales. The state is putting Jefferson County's two zoned public schools up to bid. Lake Wales Charter apparently wants in on the action. That suggests to me that Lake Wales Charter Schools is something other than I thought it was.

Follow this link for a pretty detailed account from Redefined, a Jeb Bush-foundation-backed website that has long sought to destroy the experience of geographically-distinct community schools that most Florida kids attend. Hurting that experience is very helpful in selling "choice." Here's the key excerpt:

Another candidate, the Lake Wales charter network, operates six schools in central Florida, and may soon add a seventh. A majority of the system’s students are children of color, and it includes two schools that list 100 percent of their students as economically disadvantaged. [Billy insert -- I haven't verified the data in this Redefined piece. Just quoting it for reference. I have my own data below.]

Lake Wales has some things in common with Jefferson. It’s a system of charter schools that were converted from traditional public schools after a community demanded change.

Jesse Jackson, the Lake Wales superintendent, met with district officials on Friday. He said he got to know Jefferson County during his previous job. He was the director of Florida State University’s lab school, which drew hundreds of Jefferson students into neighboring Leon County.

He said the Lake Wales schools, once under-enrolled, have attracted parents who previously sent their children to private schools, or to public options in neighboring towns. Now, most of the charter schools have waiting lists.

With the right leadership, he said, the school could gain the trust of educators who might come to work there. It could attract financial support from donors in and around Tallahassee. And it could convince parents to invest their time — and re-enroll their children — in Jefferson public schools.

“Our approach would be a whole-community approach,” he said. “It won’t just be trying to make the school better. It will be an effort, as we do in Lake Wales, to make the entire community better.”

Quite a lot to unpack in that story. But for now, let me just say this:

I don't know who speaks for Lake Wales Charter Schools. I don't know who I'm negotiating with.

LWCS has an unelected, self-perpetuating board. I am told that this board is quite distant from and disinterested in day-to-day operations and direction. The district's founder and lawyer, Robin Gibson (my beloved cousin) seems to have a different vision from its current superintendent Jesse Jackson. That's what the Jefferson County gambit tells me.

I would actually prefer Donna Dunson, principal at Lake Wales High School, as a negotiating partner.

Dunson's recent work on the culture and environment at Lake Wales High is, by far, in my view, Lake Wales Charter's biggest success. If Lake Wales Charter has room to crow, Donna Dunson gave it to them. It's true that Lake Wales High has an implicit screening process because not all Lake Wales kids automatically roll up into it. That leads to some enrollment games. But I think Dunson is an incredible educational talent. And on the whole, her Lake Wales High comes closer than any general population charter school I know to matching the charter school hype and rhetoric. Of course, it's still a "C" on the fraudulent grading system, just like Lakeland High and Jenkins. Yet another good argument for ending the fraudulent school grading system.

When push comes to shove, I suspect Donna Dunson wields the most real power in LWCS because she has the best record. I doubt anybody within LWCS would be in a position, politically, to tell her no.

For now, I look at the data in front of me, and I don't see evidence that whatever is running the Lake Wales Charter Schools wants all Lake Wales kids.

I see evidence of profound drift away from the mission it created for itself 13 years ago. I see drift away from the community district model toward an exclusionary, KIPP-like charter network of publicly-funded private schools. The Jefferson County gambit tells me that, too. It's not an irrational choice for LWCS to make. If you lead one of those KIPPish things, you make a lot more money than if you lead a geographically distinct community district. You also get to pick and choose your kids.

But if we're going to strike a deal that "makes the entire community better," we're all going to have to face the reality of that drift. We're going to have to confront what it means -- not just for Lake Wales, but for Lake Wales' neighbor communities along S.R. 60 and U.S. 27.

I say this now because I've become somewhat frustrated by the opacity and back-channel quality of this discussion. So I'm laying all my proverbial cards on the table, publicly. My phone is 863-209-4037 if anyone wants to call to chat or yell at me about this two-part series.

The outlines of a deal to end East Polk's human trafficking

As I mentioned above, the Lake Wales Charter Schools are not zoned. Any kid that does not attend one of them is entitled to an education at a zoned Polk County school. Lake Wales Charter Schools always has Polk County zoned schools to act as a backstop. That allows a very cynical Triangle Trade of East Polk kids, particularly around the Bok-McLaughlin divide.

Here's the bottom line of that: if we think of kids primarily as data, and the Florida education model does, Lake Wales imports easier/elite kids from other communities and exports harder/poorer kids from its own community. I don't care who is to blame for it; I'm just stating facts. Everyone who pays attention knows this. Everyone. On all sides. And look at how that reduces us to talking about human beings.

In a true community deal, Bok and McLaughlin would act as the Lake Wales community schools we imagine them to be. I'd love to see one Lake Wales-zoned school with two campuses. But I'm flexible. Under an acceptable, legally enforceable geographic enrollment structure, I am willing to allow the Lake Wales Charter system to lead the schools programmatically -- with the Polk School Board's strong support. (We'll have to define support, of course.)

This deal is entirely consistent with Lake Wales Charter Schools stated mission and values.

Indeed, I think we have much in common with the Lake Wales Charter System. I think many people affiliated with Lake Wales Charter look at the crushing test-and-punish Florida model with precisely the same contempt that I do. I think they look at fraudulent school grades with the same contempt I do. That's why they invited Ted Dintersmith to town. They could be great allies.

So I'm willing to sign on to a Lake Wales High School-type model for McLaughlin, if it excludes no Lake Wales kids. I am willing to take heat from McLaughlin folks for that, even though I do not "blame" them for anything. I thank them for taking on a largely thankless job in Lake Wales, under what seems like constant derision from charter triumphalists. But we won't ever get far enough for me to take heat without serious geographic commitment from Lake Wales Charter Schools.

In the deal I see, no middle school child from Lake Wales ends up zoned for Denison or Westwood in Winter Haven or Boone in Haines City. Ever. I'm not sure if that happens now. But it does happen in high school because Lake Wales has no zoned high school.

As of last summer, the Polk School District bused more than 50 Lake Wales high school-age kids 14 miles away to Winter Haven High every day. If you're in Winter Haven, you should know that. That is not helpful for the Lake Wales kids, nor the community school culture that I want to help Winter Haven strengthen.

Expect the same thing to happen on much, much larger scale if McLaughlin ever disappears as a zoned middle school. Expect the same thing to happen if we don't resolve the Bok-McLaughlin split equitably and in good faith.

The deal I support would end that busing. It would have Bok and McLaughlin students roll-up automatically into Lake Wales High. Lake Wales kids would have to actively opt-out, not actively opt-in.

That automatic roll-up does not happen now. And it may well be the Polk District's fault, not LWCS. I hear different things about this history; and I truly don't care. Changing it is what matters. That is basic community decency and common sense. It's hardly revolutionary.

The regional imperative of keeping a zoned middle school in Lake Wales

In discussing McLaughlin, we are discussing the future of the only zoned middle school in Lake Wales. Be very clear. The second, unzoned Bok that Lake Wales Charter is considering in lieu of a McLaughlin deal is an existential threat to McLaughlin.

A second Bok, using exclusivity as marketing, would likely target the most attractive chunk of current McLaughlin kids, plus another 25 percent or so of kids with the resources to travel easily from out-of-town. If McLaughlin's population dropped to 3o0 kids, of which 100 were ESE, what would happen? The Polk District would probably have to shut McLaughlin down and outsource all those kids to Winter Haven, Haines City, and Lake Alfred. To Boone, Westwood, Lake Alfred Addair, Denison, etc.

The several hundred McLaughlin kids left behind would be heavily ESE. Yes, a second Bok would probably have to take some ESE kids. But not nearly enough. Trust me, it won't take 137. And whoever it takes, it will retain the right to send away those with behavior issues to some zoned school that the Polk district operates. That will be in another community And remember, each number is human being with churning emotions who has impact on surrounding human beings.

That means Bartow, Winter Haven, Lake Alfred, and Haines City should pay microscopic attention to this process. Each community has a profound interest in keeping a zoned middle school in Lake Wales. If McLaughlin goes away, those communities will serve as the middle school backstops for the children Lake Wales Charter Schools does not want.

If you live in those communities, you should prepare to take all of Lake Wales' middle school behavior problems if McLaughlin goes away. You will get them. There's nothing that I can really do about it right now except warn you publicly. And I can remind everyone that these "problems" are flesh and blood children, who feel pain and love and rejection as acutely as everyone else does.

I can't imagine a sadder final outcome for school district created to serve its community with "no elitist schools." A second Bok will dismember the Lake Wales community. It will declare educational war on its neighbors, who have their own community struggles. They will respond, like Winter Haven is already trying to. Imagine an endless arms race of unzoned schools poaching each other's most marketable humans. Competition, Florida-style. That's a very real possibility if we don't do a co-operative deal now.

A very ugly community split

To drive that point home, let's take a look at the toxic community indicators of the Bok-McLaughlin split, by the numbers. These numbers are provided by the Polk School District except where otherwise noted:

25 -- Percentage of Lake Wales Charter's elementary schools that are Ds on the state's fraudulent grading system. 1 of 4. And that's with a zoned district school, Spook Hill, available to serve as a convenient backstop for any bad data elementary kids who fall through the cracks. Most of the kids who feed into McLaughlin come from Lake Wales Charter elementaries. McLaughin teachers believe LWCS steers kids less likely to test well toward McLaughlin. I have no idea if that's true. But it's symptomatic of a nasty, bad-faith split.

150 -- Number of Bok kids who do not live in the Lake Wales community. That's 25 percent of the 600-kid enrollment. A big chunk of the out-of-town Bok kids come from Winter Haven. Many are zoned for Westwood and Denison. I don't propose to kick those actual kids out. I do propose to limit entry of future kids. And I'm willing to take heat for that, too. Bok, as a start-up charter, cannot impose geographic limits on its enrollment; yet for a "serve the whole community" district, Lake Wales Charter seems curiously content with that restriction. I'm happy to help them lobby against it. I'll come to my suggestion for getting around the law in Part 2 of this piece.

161 -- Total non-gifted ESE kids in the Lake Wales middle schools.

137 -- ESE kids who attend McLaughlin. 15 percent of enrollment of its 806-kid enrollment.

24 -- ESE kids who attend Bok. 5 percent of enrollment.

120 -- Gifted kids who attend Bok. 19 percent of enrollment. That's more than the 18 percent gifted population at Lincoln Academy in Lakeland, the Polk School's district's famously elite showpiece magnet school. Yes, we at the Polk District do this, too.

16 -- Gifted kids who attend McLaughlin. 2 percent of enrollment.

4 -- Kids transferred from Bok to McLaughlin this year after FTE and before testing, according to sources. I will be running that down to verify. But this is, of course, a very common practice of elite magnet and charter schools. Their exclusivity is inherent to their marketing.

Here's a more compact way of looking at the split.

This little chart illustrates beautifully why school grades are fraud and must go away. Florida thinks it makes sense to evaluate Bok and McLaughlin in exactly the same way -- with an incomprehensible letter grade equation that the state changes and rigs every year. Complete fraud. Morally and educationally. If we can't do a Bok-McLaughlin deal, let's at least agree to fight for the end of this toxic fraud.

As you can see, Bok, like all elite charters and magnets, really doesn't do ESE. It does do gifted. Bok's numbers for both are in line with the McKeels, Lincolns, Lakeland Montessoris of the world. All have 5 percent or less ESE population. The overall District figure is 11 percent.

An equitable deal would put Bok and McLaughlin equally on the hook for the Lake Wales community's large ESE student population. While Bok is not legally allowed to impose zoning, I do think it could choose right now to set aside, say, 75 spots for ESE kids. It doesn't need a deal to do that. Curious that it chooses not to.

It's also curious that the impressive private philanthropy flowing into Bok serves more gifted kids imported from out- of-town than it does ESE kids in need of help right now within the Lake Wales community.

Lake Wales Charter Schools formed in 2003-04 by declaring saying "the solution should benefit all students in all schools – no elitist schools." See this screen grab from its website. You can click to enlargen.

And yet, Lake Wales Charter has created arguably the most elite publicly-funded private school in Polk County. That is indisputable. Having done that, LWCS is now looking to Jefferson County. I find that remarkable when it has such a large special needs community at home.

The obligation to confront hard problems

I worked extremely hard in Lake Wales during the campaign. I can say that the Lake Wales Charter folks were much more open and welcoming to me than McLaughlin. I never received a response from McLaughlin when I asked to visit. But I also only asked once, and I was running to oversee it. So maybe that was appropriate. Or maybe they just missed it, and I didn't try hard enough. They have certainly invited me since then. I'm planning to visit next week. (I have a family obligation this week.)

When I started the campaign, I fully intended to leave Lake Wales Charter and McLaughlin to their own devices. And I wanted to generally strengthen the relationship between district and charter and share leading practices. I knew the Bok-McLaughlin split wasn't ideal. But I didn't realize just how corrosive it is to everything.

I didn't know anything about the East Polk Triangle Trade. I didn't understand just how elite the Bok enrollment is -- and how isolated the McLaughlin community is from LWCS community infrastructure.

As I came to understand those truths, I also came to understand that I could not ignore them. I can't leave Lake Wales to its own devices because Lake Wales isn't leaving other communities to their own devices. The Lake Wales split is a Polk County problem.

This is painful for me. I do not enjoy being at odds with a family member with whom I share deep history. I do not enjoy calling out people who were very open with me during the campaign. I have burgeoning relationships with all of them. I understand if this angers them. I understand if this angers McLaughlin teachers and staff. No one is wrong to be upset with me. No one is wrong to be upset by this entire situation. It's upsetting. It's a function of Florida's horrible, anti-community model of fake choice and fake competition.

But ultimately, I did not run for School Board to get re-elected.

I ran to identify problems without euphemism or meaningless platitudes. And I ran to fix them. The Bok-McLaughlin split is as big and fraught as any. The upside of getting it right is enormous. The downside of getting it wrong is catastrophic. I'll happily sacrifice every vote in Lake Wales if we can get this right. I would happily sacrifice re-election for a lasting, fair Bok-McLaughlin deal. That's how important it is.

The core divide in Polk/Florida/American education isn't charter school vs. public school. It's traditional zoned school vs. non-zoned school. It is community/neighborhood school vs. specially-branded, enrollment-curated school. The fraudulent Florida competition model pits these schools and communities against each other. It encourages them to lie about and defame each other -- and then lie about and defame kids. It encourages communities to stick it to each other hard. It creates chronic teacher shortages. It turns kids into commodities and luxury goods.

That must stop if we want to save American public education, especially in Florida. This is a chance to strike a powerful blow in that direction. Let's do it.

Keep an eye out for part 2 next week. It will examine the legal and political hurdles to this deal and how we might overcome them. It will also game out some partnership scenarios, including potential job protection structures for McLaughlin teachers and staff, who must be treated fairly.