Billy's School Board would deliver daily public updates on our crises

The Polk School District has at least two major ongoing crises -- in addition to our ongoing general crisis of public leadership and teacher shortages. These emergent crises are:

  1. The staffing and future of the five stigmatized middle schools that have been under Tony Bellamy's failed direction. Those five schools have a combined 39 open teaching positions, according to the district's web site.

  2. The chaos surrounding zoning and enrollment in Northeast Polk related to the opening of the new Citrus Ridge K-8 Civics Academy.

Like hurricanes, these crises severely disrupt the human lives of these schools and communities. Moreover, they involve lots of tax money. Whatever happens, we're all paying for all of it. And yet, the Polk School District has made no effort to provide regular, structured updates to the schools and public.

If I were on the School Board right now, I would be demanding loudly and publicly that my superintendent and staff issue daily written updates. These updates would go out to the public at 6 p.m. each evening. Our district communications staff would hold a simultaneous press briefing, with the opportunity for questions. Moreover, we would also provide these updates through briefings and on paper to institutions that serve the communities of these stigmatized schools, such as the Lakeland Police Athletic League and local churches.

These written updates would document each day's events. They would track and count the teacher openings at the five stigmatized schools. They would update enrollment changes and openings in the Northeast. And they would provide statements from our wretched state of Department of Education about what it is doing. (That will almost certainly be nothing productive or helpful. But we would point it out.)

In short, they would do exactly what every other large government organization does at a time of crises: provide structured, regular information updates. The Polk School District has at least four full-time people on staff in its public communications office. They are quite responsive to requests, in my experience. This makes me wonder why someone in power at the organization hasn't instructed them to set up a regular communication vehicle. This is literally their job.

The fact that this is not happening is deep leadership malpractice. And it is what we have come to expect from district office leadership. It reflects the level of support and respect our teachers, parents, students, and instructional staff receive from Bartow.

The School Board could demand this, but they haven't met in weeks. And as Mr. Berryman will tell you: nothing counts except what happens in meetings. And really, it's none of the board's business to demand such a program of communication, anyway. Not Hunt's job. The others apparently agree.

My best effort at a real update on the 5 stigmatized schools

Here is my best effort at updating the Stigmatized 5.

You'll remember that the state DoE rejected the School District's "turnaround" plan a few weeks back. It gave the district until August 15 to resubmit. The district now seems to have submitted its new "turnaround" plan. I only think I know this because I think I heard Jackie Byrd say it at a Lakeland Rotary Club yesterday. I can't report on what else she and John Small said because it was a closed meeting, and I was a guest. But there was very little specific said. And I rather doubt any Kathleen Middle parents were there.

I have requested the actual turnaround document, but I haven't seen it yet. I do have fragments of information from teachers and other sources on the ground.

These indicate that the core of the plan is to create more teacher turnover by transferring out teachers with Value Added Model (VAM) scores that don't compute at the right level and replace them with teachers who have higher VAM scores. (It's worth noting that VAM scores as a whole throughout the country have been generally discredited as useless. And that's even in states that tried to use them in good faith. Florida's DoE does absolutely nothing in good faith.)

Indeed, this turnover has already happened. It's why we have 39 total openings at those five schools -- assuming the district website is being honest. Lake Alfred Addair alone has 12. A teacher I know and trust implicitly told me that the district involuntarily transferred two LAA teachers to this teacher's school. And they're good. This teacher is glad to have them. LAA kids lose. This Lakeland school wins.

The turnover comes on top of massive principal turnover. The five traditional middle schools that feed Winter Haven High have had 18 principals in Hunt Berryman's four-year term. He apparently didn't notice.

To lure new, high-discredited-VAM teachers, the district is apparently offering a bonus of either $10,000 or $7,500 (I've heard both figures) for a two-year commitment to the schools. No word on how many teachers have accepted. Or if they will actually get two years if their discredited VAM scores slip.

The number of openings at the five schools seems to have dropped from more than 50 to 39 in the last week. That could be somewhat good news -- or it could just be gaming the positions. I don't know.

When a public meeting isn't public

I saw in the paper this morning, in a little blurb, that the School District will finally hold public meetings for parents at the five schools.

But there have already been a couple of quasi-public meetings related to a couple of these schools. I heard about one about Kathleen Middle last week -- too late to go because I had already made another commitment.

I asked Leah Lauderdale, the district's top public relations official, if she could provide me with notes or minutes or an account of some kind. She could not. None apparently exist. In fact, it took her a while to extract any information at all about the actual substance and purpose of the meeting. This isn't a dig at Leah. Just stating a fact. But I want you to read the information she was able to provide me. Note how baffling it is and how many questions it leaves unanswered. Again, not a dig at Leah. But this is how inaccessible to humans Florida and Polk education is:

Thanks again for your patience as we tried to work with our colleagues involved with the meetings you referenced in order to respond to your questions.

The meetings that were held Monday and Tuesday were Community Assessment Team (CAT) meetings pursuant to 1008.345.F.S. (the statute I provided to you yesterday).

Meeting information and the purpose of forming a CAT was communicated to each school’s greater school community (volunteers and business partners).

The Florida Department of Education (FDOE) is guiding the process in accordance with Florida law, and indeed a FLDOE representative was present at both of the meetings. Our district’s School Improvement personnel are leading the effort, again with guidance from FDOE.

According to Florida statute, a CAT shall be assigned to each school district or governing board with a school that earned a grade of “F” or three consecutive grades of “D” to review the school performance data and determine causes for the low performance, including the role of school, area, and district administrative personnel. The team shall make recommendations to the school board or the governing board and to the State Board of Education, which address the cause of the school’s low performance and may be incorporated into the school improvement plan.

In that regard, there were two CAT meetings held last week:

Monday, August 8, from 6:00 – 7:00 PM in the auditorium of Boone Middle School for the following schools: Boone, Denison, Garner, Palmetto, Lake Alfred-Adair, Lake Marion Creek and Westwood.

Tuesday, August 9, from 6:00 – 7:00 PM in the auditorium of Kathleen High School for the following schools: Bartow Middle, Combee, Crystal Lake Middle, Griffin, Eagle Lake Elementary and Kathleen Middle.

The CATs were established at the direction of the Commissioner of Education. The meetings held last week were to outline the scope of work and expected outcomes and to discuss issues related to each school’s performance. Each principal spoke directly to their school’s CAT. No group recommendations were reached at these meetings as group discussions/recommendations will be a part of the future meetings.

Historically, we have not sent out media advisories for this type of meeting. We have reached out to FDOE for input and likewise to other school districts. (As a side note, last week Rick Elmhorst, a reporter from Bay News 9, was pursuing a story about the turnaround schools and he was provided with meeting information.)

Additional School Improvement/turnaround school staff were present at the meetings, in addition to the principals of the aforementioned schools.

What conclusions can we draw from that?

Well, for one, the DoE seems to be in charge. Where is its daily update? What is the name of the useless, faceless educrat DoE has foisted upon the kids and parents of these schools? Man up, and identify yourself by name to my community. My phone number is 863-209-4037. I would welcome the chance to talk with you. I'd like to interview you. I'll ask different questions than you're used to getting.

Everything about Leah's passage illustrates a vital point one must understand about the Florida model of education and Polk's slavish attachment to it. Many of our leaders in and out of the Education world do not actually want parent and community involvement. They want to complain that there isn't any. That's an important distinction. And it makes a great excuse for inaction.

For 18 years, the Florida Department of Education has had one model for education: Choose. Test. Punish. Stigmatize. Segregate. Turnover. Abandon. Repeat.

Polk County has embraced that model eagerly and loyally -- especially under Kathryn LeRoy and Hunt Berryman. And by DoE's own corrupt measures, we have some of the worst results in the state.

Maybe we should start to reassess how we do things with honesty and openness.