The failed Bartow mindset and the illusion of meetings

Late Tuesday afternoon, I was driving to Lake Wales for a Chamber of Commerce gathering when I got a call from a desperate Lakeland mother. I met her a few weeks back at a Valencia neighborhood function at the Larry Jackson Library in northwest Lakeland.

At the time, I gave everybody there my card. I urged them to call me if they wanted to tell me about their experiences with Polk schools. I'm honored this mother took me seriously.

Like a piece of used furniture

Bottom line: Rochelle School of the Arts is discarding her child like a piece of used furniture.

The girl has struggled with math. Her mother, an involved parent, has gotten her two tutors through Learning Resource Center -- one of whom was good, one of whom wasn't. And she was given a confusing patchwork pathway for making up failed credits through Florida Virtual School and summer school. The girl excelled in one class/credit unit during summer school. But through some miscommunication or confusion she did not understand she had to take and pass a second. Now she's out.

What haunted me, particularly, in speaking with this mother is hearing her say repeatedly: "I don't understand." In talking about virtual school, she said she asked a Rochelle guidance counselor for help -- repeatedly. "I don't understand virtual school," she said. What she got back, she feels, was indifference. I'm sure there multiple sides to this story; but it certainly jibes with the culture of indifference to people who say "I don't understand" that I've observed at the district level. And navigating this district is an extraordinarily complex and intimidating path for most parents, myself often included.

This is an articulate, involved mother. Under crushing stress and worry. How do you think this affects her daughter? And why does Rochelle -- a district magnet/choice school -- have a "you can't stay here if you fail a class" policy?

I sent an email this morning to some district leaders asking them to help her. We'll see what happens.

Come back to us, my new friend

When I got to Lake Wales, I spent two hours meeting everybody I could, including: the mayor, the city manager, the Chamber director, the director of the hospital, and a public school parents and spouses of teachers. I had deep conversations with most of them about Lake Wales' unique educational situation. I confirmed with greater depth a couple of things I already suspected:

1) They are very proud of and happy with their charter system.

2) The divide between McLaughlin Middle (which has remained a district school) and the rest of the system is a problem. It's a problem for Lake Wales. It's a problem for the Polk District. I learned, for instance, that McLaughlin apparently is not going to take part in the big back-to-school event that the Lake Wales community throws. I'm not casting blame on either side, here. I just want to help fix the divide. Lake Wales' children are Polk County's children. Artificial barriers do not help anyone.

But the most important conversation I had came with with 35-year-old architect. He taught math for a year at Lake Wales High a few years back to a class of kids generally considered difficult and undisciplined. He proudly informed me that all of his kids passed the state EoC test. (I can't verify that; but I have no reason to doubt it) More importantly, among these classes of tough kids, he sent not one to the office.

He described a host of creative teaching methods, including times when he realized it was time to stop teaching and just talk to his kids. All of his methods revolved around knowing the kids as individuals first and engaging them in that way. He spoke very highly of the freedom and support that LWHS Principal Donna Dunson gave him.

Most significant, he expressed some interest in coming back to teaching. A 35-year-old architect, with a record of reaching challenging kids, who also happens to be a black man. How valuable would he be to our system? What if we could convince him to teach at McLaughlin? So yeah, my conversation pretty quickly turned into a recruiting session. If you're reading this, my new friend, I want you back with us -- badly.

Meetings are where information goes to die

I recount these experiences for a reason. They happened at literally the same time the Polk School Board sat in its dingy, dark meeting room in Bartow going through the motions on a budget discussion.

Some criticism emerged of candidates who didn't attend the meeting.

I think that's because lot of people in Bartow and on the Board think that what matters in a School District is what happens at meetings. I respectfully disagree. I've been to a few of these School Board meetings. They are essentially useless for the public. I think it's currently the least important and effective part of the job -- by far -- for the School Board and school staff.

Meetings didn't stop the LIIS system. Meetings didn't flesh out and reveal the morale crisis under Kathryn LeRoy. Meetings didn't address Heather Wright's travel. Or the lack of a district org. chart. Or a host of other things Merissa has learned about from me, if she's learned about them at all. Meetings aren't discussing the fact that the School District is starting teacher negotiations this year with high-priced lawyers -- rather than dialogue -- for the first time ever.

I didn't learn any of this from meetings. I learned it from hard work and listening. In many cases, I learned from people who did not want me or the public to know about it.

A new proposed meeting structure

I am still a member of the public. If I win, I will become a board member. And then my responsibilities change a bit. And I think we can make meetings meaningful.

But it will take much more effort. I propose a radically different meeting schedule. I think the Board should meet twice per week at 6 p.m. The first meeting would be a work session. The second would be a general meeting.

Holding every meeting at night gives the public much better access. And perhaps just as importantly, it stops wasting high-priced staff time on useless meetings during the work day. I don't want my top administrators making expensive presentations to me at 2 p.m. in the afternoon, when they should be busting their butts to help schools.

That means our high-priced staff will be working twice per week from 8 a.m. till 9 p.m. That's two 13-hour days per week. I'm usually up by 6 a.m. working, learning, and writing before I start my very demanding professional work day. So that's two 15-hour days for me.

Yet, our best teachers have a more demanding job than me, our district staff, or board members. They work way past 6 p.m. regularly. We who would direct them owe it to them to push ourselves as hard or harder. And we owe it to the public to make our meetings and oversight meaningful. So we must all commit the time and effort required to do it. I will.