Improving the traditional school experience: an update on our quiet progress

The energy of overthrowing tyrants always gives way to the hard slog of building something better. That’s where we are now in the process of reforming the Polk School District. So I wanted to provide a little update about what’s been happening to improve classroom quality of life in Polk County traditional schools before I go off the grid for a few days.

1) Citizens for Better Educational Leadership’s (CBEL) first meeting a few weeks ago was a huge success. It filled the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce meeting room. And we had an incredibly substantive discussion, focused largely on classroom quality of life and assessments. School Board member Lynn Wilson attended and participated in a very constructive way.

CBEL will hold our next meeting on Monday, March 14th, from 6:30 to 8:30, at Polk City’s Donald Bronson Community Center. The address is 124 East Palmetto Lane, Polk City. Many thanks to Mayor Joe Lacascia for offering the space for this meeting. We are trying to bring this discussion to places that don’t always get the attention that the Lakeland area does. But we urge anyone who wants to attend to come.

2) At our first meeting, we formed a Testing and Evaluation sub-committee under the leadership of Wendy Bradshaw. We believe district leadership is interested in quickly reducing the district-level discretionary testing. Everyone is eager for some “quick wins,” as Lynn Wilson put it. So we’re optimistic about short-term progress on this front. Here is the email Wendy sent to members of CBEL:

You are receiving this email because you have expressed interest in participating in the Testing and Evaluation committee for the Citizens for Better Educational Leadership (or because someone recommended you as a participant). Lynn Wilson has offered to set up time to meet with (Chief Academic Officer) Jackie Bowen and himself to discuss concerns and suggestions for improving testing and evaluation in Polk County.

At this point, I would like to pull together a list of concerns and suggestions from elementary, middle, and high school related to testing and evaluation. You can help by talking to your colleagues and creating a document listing the concerns specific to your level/area of expertise that you feel can be improved at the district level. We can’t circumvent state laws (even though some of them are ridiculous). Please keep it under one page in length, as we will have to collate the information into a ‘white paper’ to give to Lynn and Jackie.

Please email your document to by Sunday, March 13th so I can have the information ready for the meeting on Monday the 14th.

3) We’re also seeing success/progress in driving public/subject matter expert participation in the search for a new superintendent. The School Board seems committed to involving the public far more directly than in the past. It’s the details that matter, of course. But targeting January 2017 for a new superintendent, rather than the start of the next school year, is helpful because it gives us more time to flesh out how public input would work.

Here is a note I sent to School Board members with my personal vision of how to involve the public constructively.

I know you all are meeting to discuss how to go about the search for the new superintendent. I don’t think I can make the meeting, so I wanted to share my personal priorities/thoughts about how the public and non-Board-member experts can play a role. I think you’ll find similar thoughts from the wider group I’m part of. But I’m speaking for myself here.

1. We could start by taking public input for a profile of the type of leader we want.

    Here would be my very quick example of a profile:
    — Committed to maximizing productive instructional time (classroom quality of life) . i.e. by stripping back district-level assessment
    — Less punitive — much more targeted — approach to discipline. De-emphasize law enforcement as much as possible. Use as a presence, not as an instrument.
    — Willingness to challenge irrational aspects of the state model of accountability.
    — Someone with success at traditional schools. A traditional zoned school focus.
    — A respect for the role of liberal arts in education.
    — Someone with a warm public personality, a commitment to having a human presence in our community, and strong public presentation skills (Ed. note: I added the last two today. LeRoy had none of these, in my observation.)

    If we could come up with a profile to feed the School Board Association, we might get better candidates, or at least not waste time with the wrong direction. How we settle on the final profile would be the tricky question. I’m open to discussion. But I would think the School Board would take recommendations and then vote on a simple profile like the one above.

    2. Interviews of final candidates by subject matter experts. My recommendation:

    — A panel of teachers and principals who interview on instructional aspects — and interrogate the candidate’s record productively. Hearing that conversation would benefit the board enormously.
    — A panel of non-K-12 educators, who will ask civic questions about equity, economic development, etc.

    3. It’s very, very important to get Polk State College President Eileen Holden involved. I think she is our most consequential educational and institutional leader. She probably knows more about the nexus between K-12 education and the wider world of Polk County than anyone else.

We’ll be discussing the public involvement question at our Polk City meeting with an eye toward refining a recommended approach that we can take to the School Board.

4) I think the energy and pressure we’ve brought has affected, for the better, how interim superintendent Jacqueline Byrd is running the district. I have heard a number of good reports about her judgment and demeanor since taking over. These range from a very successful principals meeting, in which she received a standing ovation, to basic human responsiveness to emails (again, apparently, a LeRoy deficiency.) Please contact me with contrary reports if you have them.

Do not confuse this with an endorsement. Her record here needs to be interrogated if she wants the the permanent job. And she may not want it. (I’ve never met her.) But speaking for myself only, I have no problem if Byrd applies for the permanent job. I know that a number of my allies in removing LeRoy believe everyone who came with her needs to go. I’m less categorical. I’ve seen the job Larry Giddens has done at the Lakeland Police Department rebuilding public trust. And as deputy chief, he effectively played the role of Byrd to Chief Lisa Womack’s LeRoy. I doubted that he could change Womack’s failed direction and approach; but he’s proved me wrong so far. Giddens has taught me not to rule someone out simply because of the incentives of their previous roles — or who they worked for.

5) These are all short-term considerations. I remain committed to a longer-term challenge of what the state demands that we do at the local level.  Chief among them is a new evaluation model  for schools that doesn’t “opt-out” of school-based assessment, but rather “opts-in” to something much better and fairer. I’ll be writing more about that in the days to come.

But for now, I’m very proud of the progress we’re making in the boring, non-dramatic, hard work building a more humane approach to traditional school education. I wanted to share with you all and encourage you to join us.


3 thoughts on “Improving the traditional school experience: an update on our quiet progress

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I have hope. Someone really cares. I have hope.

  2. Mr. Townsend, you forget that we have a broader educational focus than K-12 in the Polk County School System. There are two Career Centers (soon to be renamed Technical Colleges) and two Adult Education Centers. Because the national and frankly Polk County’s educational focus has long been college directed, high paying skilled and technical jobs both locally and nationally go unfilled. Part of our upcoming discussion about “the process of reforming the Polk School District”, to use your words, needs to include a comprehensive plan to fully integrate meaningful work applications within the school curriculum. Career Centers are too valuable a resource that to be relegated as a dumping ground for students who have been labeled as ‘not college material’. High school guidance counselors do a dis-service to students by putting a gold frame around a college degree and not recognizing the platinum frame quality of a career and technical certificate. I urge this topic to be included within the reformation discussions with the new Superintendent and the School Board.

  3. So much for transparency and public input in the selection of the next superintendent of the Polk County Public Schools — read it and weep!
    Our present school board members have done this community a great disservice, and I hope that the voters will remember that when they choose future school board members at the polls.

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