The Roosevelt process: good government is often messy

Roosevelt Academy in Lake Wales is an anomaly. It's essentially a 6-12th grade district magnet school for ESE students. It's not actually a magnet school; but that's what it most closely resembles in enrollment structure. There are few, if any, similar schools in Florida.

Kids apply to the Roosevelt program, which for many, many years has quietly provided a job skills and vocational program built around the ESE special diploma. As long as the special diploma existed, no one paid Roosevelt much attention. So it was able to largely shape its enrollment and education model with very little interference.

The push for change

Florida is now doing away with the special diploma option that Roosevelt has used. I don't want to jump headfirst into that debate here. But here's the reasoning: the special diploma limits what its holders can do. They can't serve in the military, for instance. The fear is that allowing the special diploma limits what ESE students can achieve with proper support and inclusion with general education population.

The counterargument is that they often don't get proper support and end up dropping out of general education and life. Roosevelt advocates generally come down on the anti-drop-out side of that. And the school has created a unique and calm environment, with very impressive experiential agriculture and vocational programs that seem to engage its kids.

Here are a couple of pictures of the hydroponics the kids help operate and the woodworking products they've created.

Of course, ESE, like so many educratic words, contains multitudes. And the experience of an ESE student, like any student, isn't an either/or proposition. Ideally, all students get the support they need to thrive as best they can. The two schools of thought above need not be in conflict. But there are limited resources to spend. And that leads us to the Roosevelt question.

How governing should work

Roosevelt's future is a complex and thorny question, in which many people with different points-of-view make good arguments.

Thanks to the public process that is occurring, we're getting to hear all of them. And it's helping shape a future. It's not necessarily fun. There was a fairly tense public meeting this week in which district leadership and my fellow board member Lynn Wilson took questions and heat from Roosevelt parents. Madison Fantozzi with The Ledger has a good account of the back-and-forth. I wasn't there.

During the meeting, one parent said: "This was all done in a hush-hush way. It's shady."

That is simply not true. There has been ongoing engagement on all sides for months. I personally have been discussing Roosevelt publicly and privately with its advocates since August, while I was campaigning. As have many other people at the district and even in state government.

If the Polk District staff wanted to be shady, it would have brought the preliminary plan it released recently directly to the School Board for an up or down vote. District leaders could have just blamed the state and thrown up their hands and dropped this in the School Board's lap for political cover. I suspect that would have happened under Kathryn LeRoy.

Instead, our evolving district leadership laid out a plan, provided a timeline for public engagement, and facilitated the engagement, which is ongoing. And it's having an effect on the plan. Our brand new chief academic officer Michael Akes stood in front of Roosevelt teachers and took direct public heat.

That's not shady. That's how governing should work. Governing means listening and explaining to the public; making tough choices; and then facing the public. That's what I ran to do. That's the type of culture change I'm hoping to help deliver at the Polk District. So I am very pleased with the performance of district senior staff in the Roosevelt process. I think they have worked in good faith. And I'm grateful to Lynn Wilson for his presence at the meeting.

True public engagement is rarely tidy. It can lead to confusing messaging and muddled understanding. That's what happens when lots of human beings bend their minds toward a complex issue. When there is good faith, as there has been here, we can work together toward clarifying the issues and finding the path forward.

And I think this process makes a very nice dry run for the much more fraught Bok-McLaughlin engagement to come.

A friendly challenge to the Roosevelt family

Roosevelt's activism and the district's willingness to listen and adjust has paid off. The Roosevelt experience is a thing that's now widely valued. Having visited the school a couple of times, I value it. I also recognize some of the issues at work in reshaping the experience for the future.

Roosevelt Principal Debra Edwards, whom I've met and like very much, said this during the public meeting, according to Madison Fantozzi's story.

"But what bothers me is why we should have to worry ... why there would be a need to re-evaluate," she said. "We've been doing this for more than 30 years — it works."

With respect, I don't see this type of thinking as viable, especially in the ESE space. We live in a very different world than we did 30 years ago. We need to constantly, productively, reasonably, and fairly evaluate what we're doing and how it benefits kids.

As Roosevelt moves forward, I personally see three overarching issues. I challenge the Roosevelt family to consider and address them in the next couple years.

  1. The admission process is overly selective. No magnet, charter, or choice school gets to screen its applicants as closely as Roosevelt does. There is a massive middle ground between "dumping ground" and hand-picked enrollment. We need to find that middle ground together. Perhaps we establish a formal magnet-school lottery/waitlist framework. That's just one idea.

  2. The Roosevelt experience both nurtures and limits its kids. This is the special diploma conundrum. One of the arguments for eliminating the middle school at Roosevelt is that 6th grade is too early to essentially declare a child unable to finish a regular high school. I feel certain Roosevelt folks will disagree that 6th grade enrollment reflects such a decision. But we need to make sure that the benefits of the Roosevelt experience do not impose unnecessary social and educational limits.

  3. Please don't market Roosevelt by insulting other children and families. Madison's story about the public meeting paraphrased a parent saying "she worries students from traditional public schools have picked up bad behavior from their peers." That's not a quote; and I wasn't there. So it's hard to comment with certainty. But this is an issue everywhere. The special school/branded school/traditional school divide -- and the assumptions that come with it -- are perhaps the greatest single issue in Polk County education. Bok-McLaughlin will be a massive test case for whether we can take a step toward improving it. Roosevelt presents itself as a safe, calm place. And I understand that appeal. But parents and staff can do that without stigmatizing other school communities. And I expect them to.

I hope the Roosevelt community sees me as a friend. I consider myself one. I consider myself a friend of every school community. But I feel a special bond with Roosevelt. We were sort of insurgents together.

However, it's comparatively easy to fight and resist and point out what's wrong or unfair. It's much harder to take that energy and use it to lead and build.

I'm trying to make that transition on the School Board.

Roosevelt has now earned the responsibility to lead, too. I know how fiercely that community loves its kids. So let's take that love -- what's worked for 30 years -- and merge it with new possibilities. Be the experts in your field. You have a very unique model. Let's expand its possibilities together.