The Stigmatized 5, part 2: Community, death, and life

By my count, the four stigmatized Winter Haven schools, plus McLaughlin in Lake Wales, have had a total of 18 principals since 2012, when my incumbent opponent took office.

Feel free to count for yourself if you want to verify. I've posted below the report the district sent me. It's what death looks like for learning community leadership. It's what happens when your state Department of Education and Legislature fancy themselves executioners, not partners. It's what happens when your local School Board imports a band of incompetent mercenaries chased out of Jacksonville to carry out the state's sentences -- and then fails to pay any attention at all to what they were doing.

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But let me tell you something else. Below the high paid failure of leadership, there is life at these schools. There is human commitment. I'm going to get to it in a second.

The vital importance of community and belief

But first, please read this excerpt from a recent article in The Atlantic. The article itself boils down the findings of a book called Helping Children Succeed by Paul Tough. I urge you to read the full article if you can. It focuses, with admirable honesty, on the difficulties of teaching non-affluent children, particularly those suffering from the stresses that come with non-affluence. It's a complex series of research findings and arguments. But this is a key point:

What makes a student persevere in any given classroom on any given day? Farrington’s answer is that it depends on his academic mind-set: the attitudes and self-perceptions and mental representations that are bouncing around inside his head. That mind-set is the product of countless environmental forces, but research done by Carol S. Dweck, a Stanford psychologist, and others has shown that teachers can have an enormous impact on their students’ mind-sets, often without knowing it. Messages that teachers convey—large and small, explicit and implicit—affect the way students feel in the classroom, and thus the way they behave there.

Farrington has distilled this voluminous mind-set research into four key beliefs that, when embraced by students, seem to contribute most significantly to their tendency to persevere in the classroom:

1. I belong in this academic community.

2. My ability and competence grow with my effort.

3. I can succeed at this.

4. This work has value for me.

If students hold these beliefs in mind as they are sitting in math class, Farrington concludes, they are more likely to persevere through the challenges and failures they encounter there. And if they don’t, they are more likely to give up at the first sign of trouble.

The problem, of course, is that students who grow up in conditions of adversity are primed, in all sorts of ways, not to believe any of Farrington’s four statements when they’re sitting in math class.

I agree with this broadly. And it's about what a child believes. Good education systems instill a sense of community and belief in their children. Moreover, Tough's findings, which are in this article, suggest that teachers who instill belief in students have a longer-term impact on the lives of their students than teachers who drive test scores. And the overlap between them isn't necessarily as large as you might think. Again, I urge you to read.

I have taught at Westwood Middle for 13 years. These are my kids.

I received this comment on my first Stigmatized 5 article.

I have taught at Westwood Middle for 13 years. These are my kids. My students are not pawns in a political game of country and state politics based on manipulated numbers; they are kids who are busy going through the tough transition of adolescence while simultaneously living all of the challenges of poverty, discrimination, and racism. Does the state want to help my students and their families to have healthcare, to keep the lights on, to have equal access to technology, to protect the boys and girls from being targeted for their race, to, indeed, help to support or to solve any of the endemic problems or kids live with every day while also coming to school? No. They’d rather close schools, bus the kids outside their communities, and continue to treat these living, unique, clever, innovative, stubborn, and loved children as problems to be swept away. We have great, dedicated, hard working teachers, and we need more. We need money and attention. We need community support, and we need our local leaders to stand up to the state and say no to bad ideas that hurt our children.

And then I received this message on Facebook.

Hey! I just read your article about the stigmatized 5. I'm the Band and Orchestra Director at Westwood Middle. I've been at this school, by choice, since September 2010. I love my school and students and want to do whatever I can to keep us from closing. I also have been telling everyone I know to vote for you. There are so many of us teachers who believe in you. Thank you!

I asked her if I could print this. Many, many people in the school system repeatedly tell me how afraid they are of retribution for speaking up.

Yes, you can. I would love to tell you more about our wonderful school and very dedicated and caring staff. We have teachers that come up to the school every Saturday to get copying and lesson planning done. We have teachers who stay every day until 6 PM to get everything ready and planned for the next day. We have administrators who stay till 8 o'clock at night when preparing for parent nights, open house, and other major school events so they can make sure everything is completed in time. I myself know all of the night custodians because I am there sometimes until 9 o'clock at night working, and that's not including the nights I have concerts, rehearsals, or other band and orchestra event at the school. I have two young boys myself at home and I routinely sacrifice time with them so I can put in the time and energy for my students at Westwood middle school. I live in South Lakeland and drive 30 minutes each way to and from school. I am approved to transport students in my private vehicle as long as I have permission from their parents. I cannot count how many rides I have given to my students after events because their parents are unable to. It's more important to me that the student is able to participate than I get home an hour earlier.

I'm currently washing all of the band and orchestra formal uniforms at my house to save money, so I don't have to use fundraiser funds to pay for cleaning them.

But I'm only one teacher at my school. I sincerely believe that our Ag teacher is probably the most dedicated of all of us. She was our teacher of the year two years ago year and certainly deserved it. She's won so many district and state awards with our FFA students in the last few years since she joined us.

I'm on the side of life

Remember this.

1. I belong in this academic community.

2. My ability and competence grow with my effort.

3. I can succeed at this.

4. This work has value for me.

Who do you think is more likely to establish this?

The huckster "turnaround" specialists who gave Polk's most vulnerable kids 18 principals in four years? Or my correspondents?

The district leadership that can't be bothered to pursue grant money for Haines City? The district leadership that doesn't respond to offers of dentistry for our neediest kids? The district leadership that doesn't respond to anything the community offers or asks for as near as I can tell? Or the people looking these kids in the eye every day, many of whom I've met and talked to in just the last few days?

I may have helped push Kathryn LeRoy out. But the women and men on the ground are the true heart of the resistance to the Berryman/LeRoy era. They have kept alive the idea of a learning community for 20 years, even as the state casually put their heads on the chopping block. They are brave. They are doing a job most of us won't do, for not much money.

They deserve every ounce of support we can give them.

If you missed part 1, of this, which lays out my high-level vision for establishing stable, productive learning communities, here's a link.

If you'd like to contribute to this vision, you can donate here.

If you'd like to talk to us in Winter Haven, here are some upcoming events.