The Stigmatized 5, part 1: The flesh and blood kids of the Winter Haven High ecosystem are a moral imperative

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The table above contains the schools of the Winter Haven High School ecosystem. These are the schools that feed into Winter Haven High. The names in green and red are magnet or choice schools. The remainder are traditional zoned schools.

Look at the middle schools. What do you notice?

Four of the five traditional middle schools that feed WHHS are on the state's closure hit list. The fifth, McLaughlin Middle in Lake Wales, is an "F" school this year. (Many of you know that I reject the validity of the destructive and absurd school grade system. I'm just using this for shorthand. And if you wonder why any kids who attend McLaughlin in Lake Wales travel 14 miles away from their homes and parents to attend Winter Haven High, so do I.)

What conclusions might we draw from this ecosystem?

I see three.

1) The teachers and staff of Winter Haven High are probably doing a pretty darn good job to avoid an F. That's especially true this year -- when the state engineered its grade formula yet again to stick it to big public high schools with large poor and minority populations.

[Update] In response to a comment I just received, I want to be clear: this is not an indictment of the teachers at the stigmatized 5. They have committed to the hardest single job in public education. They get very little support and very little stability. We need to build on their moral commitment to our kids. And we need to create an environment that will attract teachers to fill open spots -- not replace the people already in place and working hard. I may not have been clear enough in this. I apologize.

2) Expect Winter Haven High to get on the threaten closure list soon. The gravity exerted by what feeds it is too powerful. On the other hand, maybe the state will just cheat to keep it off. After all, these are political, not educational decisions. Threatening poor middle schools with closure is a very different political matter than threatening a city-namesake high school.

3) Indeed, I think the state Department of Education is thoroughly full of hooey. It's really going to close every non-magnet school that feeds Winter Haven High? Every one? (Believe me, McLaughlin won't be far behind the other four if this policy approach continues.) And five of seven overall? Where are those 4,000 kids -- plus McLaughlin -- going to go? Who wants them? People run away from them like Ebola now. You're going to send them all to Auburndale? Or Lake Wales? Or Haines City? DoE certainly won't take responsibility for any of those kids. It believes in distant judgement, not moral responsibility.

I suppose some fly-by-night charter company could roll in to cash in on the distress, like a vulture capital firm in a bankruptcy. But I doubt the practicality even of that.

A different vision

I watched a bit of the District's presentation to state DoE about the stigmatized schools. What I saw was pointlessness on all sides. I need to watch the whole thing again to be certain. But I saw no evidence of any plan from anyone at any level that ever actually asked: "What's best for these 4,000 flesh and blood kids and their families?" It's like they have no inherent value beyond the numbers they can throw off.

Well, I disagree profoundly with that. And here are the broad strokes of my vision for the Winter Haven High learning community:

1) Put our best administrator (I don't know who that is) in charge of the Winter Haven High ecosystem/learning community. Treat Winter Haven High and the elementaries and middles that flow into it as a system. This is what charter systems do. McKeel and Lake Wales are perfect examples, in different ways. We can achieve the localization benefit without the battle that comes with fighting for charter branding.

We can pilot this at Winter Haven and then replicate it elsewhere. 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. Just last week, the 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 Winter Haven's Public Education Partnership (PEP), the outstanding public education support organization formed by Doug Lockwood. 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 and environmental stability the top priorities of the learning community. One of these schools has had seven principals in 10 years. Another, I was told, had at least 10 teacher units filled with subs all year long. (That's a hard fact to verify; but we need to be tracking it closely and making it a key metric for our own evaluation criteria.) We need to ask experienced, effective teachers from all over the district to come where they're most needed. It will be much easier to fill jobs in schools our recruits leave than in those they join.

4) Focus teacher mentoring and support. I was happy to learn that 2015 Florida Teacher-of-the-Year Christie Bassett, whom I met for the first time last week, 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. We should focus all of those resources on the Winter Haven High ecosystem. That's where they're most needed. And these teacher mentors need to be in the schools, aggressively 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) Engage All Saints. 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. So what if instruction doesn't line up perfectly with Florida standards. It's not like lining it up rigidly is showing much benefit for anyone now. Let's try creating an environment that treats these 4,000 kids as if they have inherent value worth developing as people -- not numbers. More on this in part 2.

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.

My own sense, just eyeballing it, is that Winter Haven High's staff is overachieving, considering that those men and women answer the deeply moral obligation of teaching kids from five of the six most stigmatized middle schools in Polk County. If you work there, you have my gratitude and respect.

A question of morality

There's no magic in those priorities and ideas. But there is a commitment to ownership. And I hope there is a recognition that the lives of these 4,000 souls are moral obligations for all of us.

The state simply does not share the concern for those 4,000 souls. 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.

If you're in Winter Haven, and you'd like to discuss these ideas, please come see us Sunday afternoon from 4 to 6 at the Derry Down in Downtown.