Death of a Giant: RIP, Sue Buckner

Sue Buckner

Sue Buckner
1938-2011

While working on a different post about FCAT scores, I decided to check if the great Sue Buckner, the finest principal in the history of Florida (go ahead, refute it) still ran Sandhill Elementary in Haines City.

So I googled her name. What I got back, to my horror, was her obituary — a tiny two-paragraph thing in The Ledger. She died on May 9. I’ve searched The Ledger as thoroughly as I can and can’t find any evidence of news story commemorating her death. Unless I’m missing something, it’s a terrible, terrible oversight.

You take any Polk County citizen in the last 30 years, and I’ll put Sue Buckner up against him or her. In the 80s and 90s, she turned Inwood Elementary, taking only the kids from the mostly depressed neighborhood district that surrounded it, into perhaps the finest elementary school in Florida. Those kids routinely went toe-to-toe in testing with the self-selecting schools. In fact, Inwood was so good that it was often used as a bludgeon against other traditional schools. Saying Inwood can do it, why can’t you? is a little bit like saying, the Bulls won six titles with Michael Jordan, why can’t you? Mrs. Buckner was the Michael Jordan of principals.

Indeed, Inwood’s own experience shows what happens when Michael Jordan stops playing for your team. The school reverted to the mean that its statistical population would predict immediately after her departure and has essentially remained there since. The Inwood effect, built over years and years with a stable and dedicated teaching staff, couldn’t last even a year after Buckner’s departure, at least in testing terms. It’s sobering, real-life lesson to learn about the futility of teaching people to be Sue Buckner.

As if to prove the point, Buckner went on to do essentially the same thing at Sandhill Elementary in Haines City, where a school full of non-native speakers showed steady and significant improvement over a number of years.

As the new Polk Superintendent Sherrie Nickell put it a few months back:

“She is a machine,” said Sherrie Nickell, associate superintendent of learning for the Polk County School District, who will become the district’s new superintendent in November. “We need a clone machine for her.”

Such a thing does not exist, unfortunately.

I can’t speak for Sandhill, but Inwood’s experience also highlighted one of the great lies in American society–that schools sell neighborhoods. I challenge you to find a single developer that ever wooed homebuyers into Inwood by hyping the school. Rather, schools and test scores allow people to pretend that class and race don’t matter in the neighborhoods they select. Another of Buckner’s great legacies is calling that bluff–although I suspect she never remotely thought of herself as doing that.

I did not know Sue Buckner well, but I spoke to her a number of times over the years and even wrote a detailed story about the impact of her departure from Inwood. (Unfortunately, it can only be accessed through the Tampa Tribune pay archive or with your library card.)

Like virtually all geniuses I’ve encountered, Buckner seemed completely non-ideological. She never seemed to use her own experience to make points. She floated above the common debates of educational mortals. Her only focus was on doing her job, which was to educate every child for whom she had responsibility. I can’t imagine her ever declaring, “Well, I guess we just do things differently.” She would simply do things differently, and let the results speak. I can remember her saying, with a shrug, something like: “We just work as hard and well as we can and hope it works out.”

In that way, she confounded the common educational fights. In my corner, she took all kids, extended school time with Saturday sessions, seduced and demanded parental involvement, and seems to have stripped down curriculum to focus narrowly on literacy and math for young children. On the test score side, she rigorously and relentlessly used data. However, she did seem to use it as intended, as a marker for constant evaluation rather than a goal in and of itself-as an emblem of class-as I think data has come to be used. In everything, Buckner exuded a complete lack of bull.

In writing this article, I happend upon a rather fascinating discussion on teaching chat site, where Sandhill and Buckner’s practices came up. It’s worth reading if you get a chance.

In the end, I fear, for other educators, Sue Buckner’s greatest value came from inspiration and aspiration. I don’t know how useful she could be as a systemic model. After all, I’d like to write like Faulkner, but it’s not gonna happen.

However, thousands of individual kids received qualitatively better educational experiences than they would have because of Sue Buckner and her carefully assembled staff. Those kids are more literate today than they would otherwise have been. That’s priceless. And I defy you to put something better on your tombstone.

In a county where the death of rich beer distributor makes A1, that legacy certainly deserves a story.

And her name, ahead of anyone else’s in this county, should be on a school. A neighborhood school.

[box type=”shadow”]• Legacy Media on Sue Buckner

Beating the odds by Michelle Sager, Tampa Tribune

Sandhill Elementary to get new principal News Chief, August 9, 2006

Iconic Polk Principal Comes Out of Retirement by Billy Townsend, Polk County News Blog, August 9, 2006

School uniform issue debated by Brian McBride, News Chief, June 2, 2009

FCAT Reading Scores Show Improvement at 2 Polk Schools by John Chambliss, Ledger, Sep. 20, 2010

• Elsewhere

REFORM -Believing in students pays off at this Florida School — The American School Board Journal, July 2003

Sandhill Elementary

Obituary Guest Book at the Ledger

Obituary Guest Book at the News Chief[/box]

One thought on “Death of a Giant: RIP, Sue Buckner

  1. Hi-
    You’re “it’s worth a reading if you get a chance” does not go to the tuff-teach forum when I hit the link.

    You seem to think that Sue Buckner was the magic element. I disagree. What was magic about Sue Buckner was her adherence to government mandates and her ability to pull away from textbook publishers and testing that did not give good data and follow Dr. Max Thompson’s educational model – which is in alignment with what education is supposed to be doing. Kipp Academy suffered from the same belief at first – until they created 45 more successful academies – following a process is like following a recipe – an idiot can do it if they have the blueprint. You have to want the successful recipe more than you want the status quo in order to transform education the way Sue Buckner did.

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