A Lake Wales Vision, part 2: choice liberated from the fraudulent Florida model

Here is the link to Part 1: The Future of Lake Wales is in Lake Wales, not Jefferson County. What follows is part 2.

——————————————————————————————————————-

Lake Wales fascinates, excites, and frustrates me for the same reason.

All the pieces exist there, right now, for an entirely new, community-based model of education with something for just about everyone.

This model could equitably and cooperatively merge compulsory and non-compulsory community education. I think it would have the political clout to tell Florida’s corrupt and awful Department/Board of Education/Legislature to go flagellate itself — and likely get away with it.

Unfortunately, as I understand it, LWCS simply wants the Polk School Board to turn McLaughlin over to it with no strings attached. Absent that, they’ll move toward a second charter Bok. LWCS has no interest in keeping a zoned, compulsory education middle school. That’s what I perceive from the letter that LWCS board member and general counsel Robin Gibson, my cousin, whom I like and love, sent to the School Board on April 3.

I probably can’t stop a second Bok — at least not at this moment in time.

But I know I can’t just hand over McLaughlin. I knew that well before I did serious fact-finding. I must have a zoned middle school in Lake Wales to protect neighboring communities. Turning over McLaughlin takes that zoning away. I made that position clear repeatedly in part 1 and in many other conversations. I can’t and won’t vote to outsource Lake Wales’ student behavior and ESE issues to other communities. That’s the likeliest outcome of doing away with a zoned middle school in Lake Wales. I will show you the data.

Let’s go big — and equitable

Unfortunately, Florida law does not allow for charter school zoning. That’s the key structural impediment to any deal with LWCS to unify the middle school community and the overall school system in Lake Wales.

So we need a waiver, or special legislation that allows geographic limits. And if we’re going to do that, let’s merge how we do ESE and arts education. Let’s give everybody in that community both the stability of neighborhood-based compulsory education and access to choices that work best for each individual. Let’s have both providers work together in the best interest of the many kids who move between them.

Let’s set up a standing cooperation committee.  I’ll volunteer as the School Board’s representative. Let’s work toward a memorandum of understanding (MOU) about how we operate with each other. If we need special legislation to codify it, let’s work toward that.

Endless possibilities exist for a better, unified, partnership model in Lake Wales. Only the bad human incentives, fraud, and ego-driven scoreboard mentality of the Florida model prevent this from happening.

If you’re reading this in Lake Wales, I am committed to doing the work of building that model with you, as I hope my effort to educate myself in this has shown. But I’m not going to lie to you about what I see. Some of it may be jarring to LWCS boosters. You’re going to have to choose how to react to it. But it is the voice of a friend and partner — if you want one at the district.

Here’s my best, most honest assessment of the state of Lake Wales educational community — charter and district alike. I don’t pretend to know everything. I’d love to hear critiques of my analysis. But this is what I see right now.

A strong high school and Lawton Chiles-on-Crooked Lake

LWCS runs an an excellent “C” high school, a sentence that illustrates once again the fraud of the school grade system.

I’m concerned, however, about what happens when Donna Dunson retires. By LWCS’ own narrative, the charter high school struggled mightily until Donna took charge. Leadership matters a lot. The environment I saw at LWHS under Dunson’s leadership is very impressive and encouraging. As I’ve said before, it comes closer to fulfilling the original purpose of charter schools than any other general population charter I’ve seen.

LWCS has also created a Lawton Chiles-on-Crooked Lake accelerated academic middle school — while also drawing/recruiting from much of East Polk. I have no problem with accelerated schools. The Babson Park-to-Bok pipeline looks very similar to me to Lakeland’s Lincoln-to Lawton Chiles pipeline — right down to the alliteration. Lakeland’s “leadership families” demand such a thing. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect Lake Wales’ “leadership families” to demand that, too.

It’s also reasonable for Lake Wales families to look at Bok and wonder why it has so many kids that aren’t from Lake Wales.

When I visited Bok, I saw a highly structured freight train of scoreboard-focused rigor. Some kids will likely jump on that train and thrive. Others — like ESE kids and Level 1 readers — are more likely to get flattened by it as human beings. I don’t really understand why it’s controversial to say that. Nor should it be controversial to say McLaughlin absorbs the vast majority of Lake Wales ESE/IEP population, which largely allows Bok to maintain its accelerated rigor train for non-ESE kids all over East Polk.

Like every other general population charter or magnet school I’ve ever seen, all evidence suggests to me the LWCS provides very limited and mediocre services for ESE kids — and especially IEP kids. I am aware there is a privately-funded unit at Bok doing nice things. [Ed. note: The previous statement about “privately funded unit” is wrong. My wording was far too sloppy there. There are some caveats that I could use to try to explain the nuances of the statement. But it’s easier and more correct just to say that Bok has received generous philanthropic support and leave it at that.]

It’s important to remember that ESE need is overwhelmingly vast — and the mandates from above unavoidable. I don’t see evidence that LWCS has a plan for addressing those needs at scope. But I’m open to being shown one.

The Polk district has our own struggles in ESE, which reflect our state and federal government’s lack of commitment to their own mandates. But I think we have more resources and can help.

McLaughlin has successes, too

McLaughlin’s excellent arts education fills what I see as a pretty big hole in LWCS arts offerings. I visited McLaughlin recently and saw tremendous engagement in the arts classes — as much engagement in those classes as I saw in LWHS and Bok. A McLaughlin kid just won the countywide visual arts competition for like the seventh year in a row. Here’s the picture.

Moreover, I recently saw three McLaughlin teachers (among the dozens of other dedicated Polk teachers) give up their Saturday — on maybe the prettiest day of this year — to curate and promote the McLaughlin exhibit in Munn Park. That’s way beyond what the $150 stipend we give them for the whole year requires. People casually slag off on the commitment of teachers anywhere at their peril and ignorance.

Harrison School of the Arts in Lakeland accepted 12 McLaughlin kids this year. Half are on the waiting list because of enrollment caps in programs. But they were good enough to make it. McLaughlin kids form a sizable chunk of the small Harrison guitar program — a total of four for next year. I saw that McLaughlin guitar program and teacher through a doorway. Total engagement. I saw a stunning lion drawn by a McLaughlin kid with particularly challenging needs.

I’m not just going to rip that away from kids. I can’t.

McLaughlin is also an “F” school with academic teacher and administrative turnover problems. Similar problems plague other zoned schools serving non-wealthy communities. I’ll delve into that more deeply in a bit.

An LWCS-to-McLaughlin pipeline problem: 51 percent at Level 1 Reading

Fifty-seven of the 111 LWCS elementary kids entering McLaughlin Middle as sixth graders this year read at Level 1 on the FSA test — the lowest possible level.

That’s more than half. 51 percent. At Level 1. (The level system itself is corrupt and destructive. Know-nothing legislators create the levels with political, capricious cut score votes in Tallahassee. But that’s for a different post.)

If you believe in data, the data is unambiguous. At least this year, McLaughlin received significantly better prepared kids from the Polk District’s zoned schools than from LWCS. People at LWCS may find this data jarring. I found it jarring. It wasn’t what I expected to find. But it’s extremely important to any discussion of Bok-McLaughlin.

And it made me ask:

Why does LWCS think taking over McLaughlin — or creating a new Bok — will make it more successful with the kids it sent there? LWCS already had its shot at these flesh and blood kids for six years. Why will giving years seven, eight, and nine to LWCS produce better results on the fraudulent scoreboard?

I know LWCS has impressive philanthropic commitment that can supplement efforts. Wouldn’t private money aimed at the new Bok have greater impact on the Lake Wales community if it went to shoring up the LWCS elementary schools?

What if Mr. McCance used his seed money for wrap-around services at McLaughlin and the elementary schools? What if he helped us create a community school there along the Evans Community School model in Orlando? A district task force is already studying that model for other schools.

One of us is a provider of compulsory education services; one of us isn’t

That fraudulent Florida model makes it clear that LWCS and I are not in the same business. But it insists on pretending that we are. That is a fundamental structural issue of public education. It must be addressed in Lake Wales, Polk County, and Florida.

As a Polk School Board member, I own the responsibility to fulfill state-mandated compulsory education requirements for all Polk kids in all Polk communities. Their parents, capability, motivation, or behavior do not matter. I own compulsory education for normal education, gifted, 504s, ELLs, and IEPs alike.

The state of Florida and federal government do not allow the Polk School District to operate. They are not doing us a favor. They order us to operate. They order us, under pain of prosecution, to take all kids. I happen to want that responsibility. It’s sacred to me. But Richard Corcoran and Jeb’s foundation have no plans to make it a choice. If they were intellectually or morally honest, they would make it a choice. But they’ve proven over and over again they are not morally and intellectually honest.

The force of the state requires children to attend school. It requires me to serve them. Whether they come from Crooked Lake, central Lake Wales, Hatchineha, or Haiti, all kids must, by law, come to school. But only the Polk District’s zoned schools have the legally-enforceable obligation to take and keep and care for them.

LWCS doesn’t even own that obligation in Lake Wales.

I’m pretty willing to give it to them under certain enforceable guidelines. But that’s a different thing than just handing over the keys to McLaughlin.

Look at all the communities the McLaughlin zone touches.

As I said, state charter law currently does not allow charter schools to have compulsory education, geographic zones; and I have yet to see anything creative that maintains McLaughlin as a zoned, compulsory education school in any LWCS proposal.

Therefore, if I hand LWCS the keys to McLaughlin, I will still own the compulsory education responsibility for everybody in the blue district. I’ll just have one less facility with which to execute the mandate; and no such facility for middle schoolers in the Lake Wales area.

History and fact-finding suggest that huge numbers of behavior problems and ESE kids will get outsourced to the other-colored districts, where compulsory education still resides.

I’m going to show you data on this in a moment.

A vortex of bad incentives

But first, I want to be clear that I don’t see bad people or bad intentions at the local level in this data and rhetoric. Those people and intentions operate primarily in Tallahassee. Here, I see the horrible human incentive vortex with which the Florida model lays waste to communities.

I see what happens when one small, economically-strapped town has a publicly-funded system of compulsory education and publicly-funded choice system operating in the same space and evaluated on the same fraudulent scoreboard. That unbelievably thorny conundrum defines the education debate in Polk County more than anything else. Lake Wales is its epitome.

Indeed, Lake Wales Charter only exists because of the incentives created by our district magnet schools years ago, which still exist in virtually every community. I personally acted on those incentives over the years in ways that likely harmed traditional zoned schools. I’m not here to judge anybody — except maybe Kelli Stargel.

LWCS says it wants to “take” all kids in the Lake Wales area. And perhaps it does. But I’ve seen no such commitment to “keep” all kids. Keep is the key word. That’s the word that defines compulsory education.

If you know a school has no incentive or obligation to “keep” your kid, you take a great life risk in applying to that school. That risk is even greater when you hear many stories about kids not kept at schools that took them. It’s a deterrent. That’s how incentives work to shape and curate enrollments. And that’s on top of the incredibly powerful incentive created by the simple human desire to be around people and communities one recognizes and feels comfortable within.

Fact-finding

The pie chart below breaks down the enrollment structure of the McLaughlin sixth grade. As you can see, the percentage of kids that come from the choice-based charter schools and the compulsory education district schools is about the same.

I have focused in this essay on the six elementary schools that provide the most sixth graders for the Bok-McLaughlin ecosystem. On the charter side, they are: Dale Fair Babson Park, Polk Avenue, Hillcrest, and Janie Howard Wilson.

On the district side, they are: Spook Hill and Chain of Lakes. District schools from all over Polk County provide tiny increments of additional kids that round out the district’s contributions.

The data table below shows how many kids from the six schools I cited go to either Bok or McLaughlin.

And they show, for McLaughlin, the elementary FSA test achievement levels of the kids coming from each of those schools. I don’t have that data for Bok. But comparing school grades with enrollment patterns is pretty suggestive.

Key points, in addition to the stats I mentioned above:

— Only 18 percent of LWCS kids — 20 of 111 — entered McLaughlin “proficient” or better (Levels 3-5) in Reading on the state’s corrupt scoreboard.

— By contrast, 33 percent of the 64 district-school kids are Level 1 readers. 37 percent are Level 3 or better.

— With barely more than half the number of kids, the district schools serving Lake Wales produce more “proficient”-or-higher kids than LWCS. 24/64 versus 20/111.

— To recap, for Reading: Level 1 — 51% (LWCS) to 33% (Polk District); Level 3 or better — 18% (LWCS) to 37% (Polk District).

I recently crunched and confirmed these numbers with both LWCS and the Polk district as part of my fact-finding due diligence. I think this data provides incredibly important context. So does what follows.

“…the kids that don’t get into Bok because of low test scores or grades…”

This table simplifies the one above so we can compare the achievement levels of kids from LWCS choice elementaries and those from the district’s compulsory education schools.

Some key observations:

— Babson Park is LWCS’ only “A” elementary on Florida’s fraudulent school grade system. Take a close look at the Babson Park enrollment split at Bok and McLaughlin. 49 to 11. Now look at the numbers the 11 Babson Park kids at McLaughlin throw off. What does it suggest about enrollment curation incentives?

— For LWCS schools as a whole, there is a direct, inverse correlation between school grade and reading proficiency of student that enters McLaughlin. In other words, the “better” the LWCS school, the “worse” the kid reads when he or she enters McLaughlin. What does that suggest about enrollment curation incentives?

— The scoreboard outcomes in Math are much closer than those in Reading. You have a higher percentage of Level 1s from the district compulsory schools; higher percentage of Level 2s for LWCS; and the proficient-and-above are essentially even.

— I’m going to be taking a close look at Chain of Lakes, which is a huge elementary school (1,100 kids) delivering what appears to be good results. And I’m told it has an excellent ESE program.

— Janie Howard Wilson, the LWCS “D” school, outperforms the other three LWCS elementaries in the kids it sends to McLaughlin. It’s only JHW that allows LWCS to keep pace in Math with the district compulsory schools for McLaughlin kids and maybe nudge slightly ahead. If you take the JHW “D” school out, LWCS provides a smaller percentage of “proficient” Math kids to McLaughlin than the compulsory schools.

— I can’t account for a fairly large portion of JHW kids. There seems to be a chunk that doesn’t attend either McLaughlin or Bok. I have no idea what happens to them.

I find the last two bullets fascinating because of this note from a Janie Howard Wilson teacher that I received after my first Bok-McLaughlin piece.

Hi I read your article on the Bok-Mclaughlin situation. I was born and raised in Lake Wales. Went to the schools before they were charter and now teach at one of them, Janie Howard Wilson. Most of the kids that don’t get into Bok because of low test scores or grades come from my school. [ed note: my emphasis] We are probably the lowest economic school in the charter system. Our numbers are low because we are a D school therefore the money we get is lower than other schools. I was reading about zoning and I wish schools were still zoned.

We get the kids that get kicked out of the other charter schools due to grades or behavior and we take them because all they are are dollar signs. [ed note: my emphasis] I hate that kids aren’t seen for kids anymore but as dollar signs. The teachers at my school work tremendously hard to get these kids where they need to be, though, and never give up in them. Our Assistant Principal does small pull out groups along with our math and reading coach. They offer afterschool tutoring. We work our butts of for those kids and all anyone sees is a school grade. I love your idea of having Donna Dunson helping. She has really turned the high school around and other schools in town before that. She would be a great positive influence with a lot of new, great ideas. Just wanted to give you a view from a Lake Wales resident who has seen the changes in the schools from a first hand perspective.

We must also add the ESE split at Bok-McLaughlin to this data discussion. I provided this breakdown of ESE split in my first article.

It would have been more precise to call it an IEP-split. It did not include so-called “504 plan” students. You can essentially think of 504 as ESE-lite, who may not actually receive any particular special service beyond a testing accommodation. Also, the federal data available for ESE has a one-year lag.

Bok’s updated data showed 30 kids with IEPs and 52 kids with 504s. That compares with McLaughlin’s 138 IEPs and 59 504s for the current year.

Again, all charter schools, like all district magnet schools, have the luxury of zoned district schools to act as backstops for the kids charters and magnets don’t want — or who find they don’t fit in at a charter/magnet and leave voluntarily. That is especially true with ESE kids who have disruptive behavior issues.

Ask any teacher or principal at a zoned school about the challenges posed by the forced concentration of  students with severe behavioral issues. It only takes a small handful to affect a school’s culture. A large portion of these kids are designated as ESE, with their behaviors considered manifestations of their conditions. And the state and federal government generally fail to provide adequate resources to address this humanely. This is particularly true in middle school. Many principals and teachers consider this the single greatest cultural challenge that zoned schools face. I hear it over and over and over again.

Elite charter and magnets just opt out of this problem altogether. And then their most shameless advocates, like Jeb Bush’s foundation, sell their environmental advantages. This is not a new story. One of the worst segregations in American schools is ESE on one hand — and elite learning kids on the other. Rarely do the twain meet. They are separated by a great gulf of kids in the middle at traditional zoned schools.

Whether LWC intends this segregation or not, this is what happens with the current Bok campus. It will accelerate with a second Bok. By the way, I have intentionally not broken all of this down by race. You don’t want me too. It’s not pretty.

Let’s agree on what’s obvious…

This fact-finding provides useful context to the letter School Board members recently received from Robin Gibson, in his capacity as general counsel for the Lake Wales Charter System. Here are some key excerpts:

The Legislature has given Polk County the opportunity to immediately eliminate an F school while at the same time heal the divide in the Lake Wales community…

…If it doesn’t happen, I guarantee you the adults will spend their time regurgitating the same old self-justifying and fault finding arguments that have thus far accomplished nothing in the past…

…THE LAKE WALES CHARTER SYSTEM WANTS DESPERATELY TO EDUCATE ALL LAKE WALES MIDDLE SCHOOLERS ALL LEVEL ONES, EVERYBODY TOGETHER UNDER ONE ADMINISTRATION. FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 13 YEARS, ALL MIDDLE SCHOOLERS WOULD BE ABLE TO ENTER LAKE WALES HIGH SCHOOL ON EQUAL FOOTING…(ed note: the all caps is his)

…There is no margin for error. The planning for Bok North is done. Implementation begins July 1 with our philanthropist’s check for 1 million dollars. At that point, the process will be irreversible. Bok North is a two-year project. The charter system is committed to addressing parents’ pleas to provide seats for the waiting list. The system cannot further lengthen the process…

…Instead, let’s agree on what’s obvious: 1) For whatever reason, McLaughlin kids have been ill-served, and 2) A strong middle school, acting as the keystone for a coordinated K-12 system, is what’s best for kids.

I begged Robin Gibson — and everybody else — multiple times to avoid this triumphal, contemptuous us-against-them tone. It’s not helpful for healing or making deals. So this letter made me sigh with sadness — because it forced me to write this in response:

If McLaughlin kids have been “ill-served” at McLaughlin, the 51 percent of LWCS elementary school students coming into McLaughlin at Level 1 reading have been equally or worse-served by the LWCS elementary schools.

Despite six years of access, LWCS has done nothing on Florida’s corrupt scoreboard with half the kids it sends to McLaughlin.

What “self-justifying” and “fault finding arguments” will Gibson regurgitate to explain that performance? How exactly will kids in a six-year hole enter Lake Wales High School on an equal footing, no matter where they attend middle school?

And remember, LWCS has complete, ruthless control over its non-union teachers. It can fire them at any moment for any cause, a point it likes to make in comparison to district schools. Why hasn’t that worked? I thought killing unions was the magic bean that would sprout excellence for the neediest kids.

Finally, LWCS has offered nothing — nothing — around accepting the compulsory education burden.

Saying you want all kids — including Level 1s — in all caps does not make it any more true than saying it in normal font. All caps is not legally enforceable language. All caps does not wipe out data.

And now I’m done with that tone. Forever. I have no interest in this stupid, pointless, ego-driven tit-for-tat discussion of who is better or worse than whom. No interest in it. My only reason for raising it here is to show with data that Gibson’s premises are wrong.

Meaningful, constructive self-criticism

The Lake Wales Charter System has injected some much needed community energy and ownership into Lake Wales education. It’s a wonderful model for other communities in that sense.

It also has credibility with the state because the state is always looking for a political weapon to use against the people in the compulsory, zoned schools it despises. Jeb Bush’s foundation loves to pat LWCS on the head because it serves its ideological and political purposes. It doesn’t care about actual data and performance. Jeb’s foundation does not care about actual flesh and blood kids in Lake Wales. I do.

The downside of that energy and pride and constant good feedback is an unwillingness from LWCS, as I see it, to engage in meaningful self-criticism. And even worse, there seems a willingness to disparage the men and women and children at compulsory education schools when there isn’t much, if any, reason to do so. Moreover, because the LWCS board is unelected and self-perpetuating, the community as a whole has no real mechanism to impose self-criticism through politics.

I think that has lead to some oversight and directional complacency. You can see that in the elementary school performance I documented above. And you can see it in the fact that no one on the LWCS board seemed to know that LWCS was in discussions with Florida’s DoE to run the Jefferson County schools. I am grateful that the board acted quickly, once I told Lake Wales about it, to quash that discussion. It’s helpful.

Moreover, I believe meaningful self-criticism would tell LWCS that simply creating a second, non-compulsory education middle school at either the existing McLaughlin campus or at a refurbished building downtown will do nothing to change the preparation of the Lake Wales-area children flowing up into that middle school. And it won’t do anything but exacerbate the community split.

The district’s failures

Obviously, self-criticism must extend to the Polk District — and myself.

I’ve spent more time identifying and analyzing LWCS issues than the District’s in the last few weeks. But that’s only because I’ve spent the last 16 months or so laying out the District’s failures — particularly under Kathryn LeRoy — in a brutally public way. I named names — and helped remove a number of them. Indeed, I played perhaps the leading role in putting the previous district administration’s head on a spike. Spend some time on Billytownsend.com and lakelandlocal.com if you doubt that.

But I only did that to atone for my own failures of attention. I have a fairly strong community voice and platform. Yet, I stayed silent and inattentive for far too much of the LeRoy administration. I apologized to the public for it. And I asked voters to help me correct it on their behalf to the best of my ability.

The Polk County public, overwhelmingly, did just that. It acted clearly to impose me on the district and the School Board as a voice of self-criticism and cultural change. That’s what elections can do.

I’m on the record saying calling for generational change on the School Board — while also trying to work with individual School Board members. I’m on the record pushing for administrative cultural change while also trying to make progress with the people and systems we have in place.

In short, I think I’ve helped lay out the District’s and School Board’s and wider Polk community’s challenges pretty well. But here a few others that relate directly to Lake Wales.

— It is absolutely true that some portion of Lake Wales’ leadership class formerly fled Lake Wales compulsory schools so that they could attend district magnet schools in some other town. Much like the leadership class in every other Polk community has fled its zoned/compulsory education schools. I think if the district had simply built a Lawton Chiles-style magnet middle in Lake Wales in 1999, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. District folks, in response, point out that magnet schools weren’t really optional in those days under the federal desegregation order. LWCS sought to win the leadership class families back. And it’s done that. But at what cost?

— At some point in the last few years, district personnel made a decision to steer some McLaughlin students away from Lake Wales High School. I don’t know the precise forensics or who, how, and when. I hear varying stories. But I think the district was the key force in preventing automatic application or roll-up into LWHS. I also think, based on various reports, that LWHS has done some recruiting elsewhere and some enrollment curation. In any event, establishing Lake Wales High School as the default high school for all Lake Wales area kids is a priority for me. And every indication I have suggests that both sides agree. We’ll see.

— LWCS Superintendent Jesse Jackson recently told me that LWCS had a donor lined up to fund two social worker positions at McLaughlin a few years back. He said the district, under LeRoy’s leadership, rejected the offer. I can’t verify the forensics of that either. But it wouldn’t surprise me. Any such offer in the future will receive warm consideration from me. I can assure you of that.

— I think LWCS has tried to engage McLaughlin in its community events and activities — such as the wonderful school-year-kick off event. Spook Hill came to that event this year; McLaughlin didn’t. That’s unfortunate. At the same time, I can see how McLaughlin folks can look at public gestures like that as disingenuous, given some of the enrollment incentives and LWCS rhetoric. We need to work on that together.

Eliminating the F immediately

Most importantly, McLaughlin suffers from the same problem that many, many non-wealthy compulsory education middle schools in Polk County and Florida do. The Florida model forces it to prioritize “eliminating the F” over serving its kids.

It’s extremely telling that Robin Gibson opened his letter like this: “The Legislature has given Polk County the opportunity to immediately eliminate an F school…” That’s the voice of someone who can’t think beyond the confines of the corrupt Florida model.

The same could be said for Kathryn LeRoy. All compulsory education middle policy in Polk County in recent years organized itself around immediately eliminating F schools (or D schools). And that policy failed miserably for kids and adults alike.

Look at the principal turnover of our TOP middle schools and the next tier of schools behind them, which includes McLaughlin. It’s all school grade-driven. A principal makes a some progress “moving” a school — usually with a temporary infusion of support — and they’re immediately transferred to an F or D school, which Tallahassee created in the first place. When they leave, the support leaves, and the school struggles again. Rinse. Repeat.

Lake Alfred Addair alone had five principals in 15 months heading into this school year.

You can see this at McLaughlin. Various folks I talked to thought Sharon Chipman was making sound human progress at McLaughlin when she was abruptly sent to Boone Middle two years ago. Now, at Boone, the Polk district is about to approve a magnet school plan at Lake Alfred Addair that will outsource some number of Lake Alfred Addair students to Chipman at Boone. Rinse. Repeat. Eliminate that grade immediately.

It’s anti-human, anti-community madness.

Even Sen. Kelli Stargel implicitly acknowledged a few weeks ago the utter failure of the Florida model she’s jammed down our throats for years.

Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, introduced a bill Monday with a description anyone who has parented a tween or young teen could appreciate: “Now we’re going to go to another difficult subject,” she said, “which is middle school children.”

Stargel’s bill (SB 360) isn’t meant to offer parenting advice, however.

Instead, it would require the Florida Department of Education to study middle school academics in high-performing states — think Massachusetts and Minnesota, among a few others — and then make recommendations on how to improve things in the Sunshine State.

In truth, the only people who “immediately eliminate” F and D and A schools are our legislators, when they fraudulently adjust the cut scores and inputs that calculate the fraudulent grades. And then they send 40-page “technical assistance” documents to put some scientific veneer on their fraud.

Tallahassee, not local schools, controls school grades. We desperately need to stop playing this corrupt and inhumane game. I will fight to the death to remove “becoming an A district” from the Polk Strategic Plan. It is a silly goal that we do not control; and Tallahassee will never allow us to achieve.

And why would any good teacher or bright young person choose to go into this humanity meat grinder of a model?

Not each other’s enemies

Remember what education author Ted Dintersmith said at the event LWCS itself hosted about changing our national model of education. I wrote about at it the time.

He told us after the movie that every state government he’s visited in America is doing something to improve the innovation and humanity of its education system — except one. Guess which. This is a direct quote: “I’ve talked to a lot of Florida legislators; and I tell them, ‘I know you don’t wake up every day trying to destroy your kids’ education and chase away your best teachers. But that’s what you’re doing.” I think Dintersmith actually gives them too much credit.

LWCS itself hosted this event. And cheered Dintersmith on as much as I did. I was there.

In truth, neither the compulsory district nor the choice charter district have much to crow about in the Lake Wales area. We can both do better. But we shouldn’t we hang our heads in shame. Or shame each other.

Our people — on both sides — have given their lives to working with kids. We should honor and support that. And we should fight the real enemy — which isn’t each other. It’s Tallahassee and the Florida model and the Kelli Stargels of the world. Just because the JebamaBetsyCore model uses you cynically, LWCS, don’t think it’s your friend. It’s not.

We both have much work to do blowing that model up and building something new and humane. Let’s do it together. A second Bok or an unzoned McLaughlin would just blow up Lake Wales.

You heard it right from Robin Gibson’s keyboard. A second Bok will prioritize its fraudulent grade. That will be its incentive. It’s not going to become an A middle school by taking the 51 percent of LWCS Level 1s flowing into McLaughlin. Does anybody really think otherwise? Really?

Instead, using its exclusivity as inherent marketing, it’s going to attract the most marketable chunk of current McLaughlin kids, plus another 25 percent or so of kids with the resources to travel easily from out-of-town.

Again, I don’t think I have the power to stop a second Bok today. But the ground level politics of charter schools (and magnet schools) are changing. I’m partial evidence of that, I believe. But don’t take my word for it.

Take the word of Greg Richmond, president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. Read his essay in Education Week titled: “Why I’m worried about the future of charter schools.”

I have little doubt that there will be more schools with the word “charter” in their names in the years ahead. Yet I have serious concerns about whether these schools will be faithful to the principles upon which the charter school philosophy is built…

Richmond’s critique is a little different than mine on the surface. But at it’s heart, it’s a recognition of the growing unpopularity of charter/magnet schools. It’s a recognition of how unpopular Betsy DeVos and Jeb Bush and the Common Core mindset are. The state and national choice/charter and Common Core advocates have largely brought this on themselves through unconfronted abuses and unjustified arrogance. I think a lot of them know it.

And I find the vast majority of choice folks in Polk County extremely open to exploring post-Florida model options. I’m eager to work with them to help us all find a path out of this together.

In any event, rolling the dice today on an unzoned Bok today guarantees nothing about the politics of the future. What you do today, Lake Wales, you’ll be living with as a community for 5, 10, 30 years. Long after I’m gone and dead. Think hard about it now. I’ll help you.

The hurdles to a deal — and what’s possible

I see two primary hurdles to a deal.

First, existing Florida charter law likely does not explicitly allow the structure I want. As I said before, Florida law does not allow any geographic limitations on start-up charters like Bok. And it allows only geographic priority for conversion charters, like the Lake Wales Charter elementary schools or Lake Wales High.

Geographic priority under the law is not going to be good enough for a deal. We have to remove the backstop structure entirely. We’ll have to be a shared back stop and front stop. We need to share the compulsory education burden.

I do not think this will be a problem if everyone wants to do it.

The BoE already showed this summer how eagerly it will impose its own law in mindlessly seizing control of the five TOP middle schools, which include Boone, Westwood, and Denison. The technical niceties of law don’t matter that much to it. Maybe lawlessness can for work for us for once.

Imagine if Jackie Byrd, Jesse Jackson, Donna Dunson, Damien Moses, Billy Townsend, Sam and Eileen Killebrew, Adam Putnam, Kelli Stargel, Robin Gibson, Lori Cunningham, J.D. Alexander, Mr. McCance, and anybody else who wants to come, links hands and tells this to DoE/BoE:

We have a tremendous partnership plan in place, modeled on the success with environment at Lake Wales High and with respect for McLaughlin’s art programs and willingness to take on Lake Wales’ toughest challenges. It will combine geographic community commitment to all kids with the creativity and freedom that charter/choice status allows.

Indeed, this is choice. It’s choice liberated from the cynical, crippling, teacher-shortage fake competition imposed by the failed Florida model. This is a post-Florida-model vision. Community + creativity + humanity is the future of education. Help us make it real. 

That group of people with that message would get a waiver in a second. At the very least, we should make DoE/BoE say no. They wouldn’t. But even if they did, let’s go get a special piece of legislation to allow it. The solution to the Bok-McLaughlin split is political, not legal.

Political good faith is also the biggest hurdle. I believe there are at least four votes, including me, on the Polk School Board for a deal on these rough parameters. That’s good faith.

Jackie Byrd, Michael Akes, Lynn Wilson, Sara Beth Reynolds, and I had nothing to do with the historical drama and conflicts that got us to this point. We’re all essentially brand new leaders. I can’t speak directly for them; but I can tell you that I care only about today and the future. This a problem we all need to solve.

But I don’t see the same good faith yet from the Lake Wales Charter System to do this kind of deal. Or at least I’m not sure who really has the power to negotiate out there.

Robin Gibson’s apparently official letter was gratuitously and unproductively confrontational. It is not encouraging. But I have seen that many different people in Lake Wales have a stake in this — from LWCS to McLaughlin folks to the Lake Wales City Commission. I wish there was a democratic board structure for LWCS so I could really gauge what the community wants. But there isn’t. So I have to infer.

I think most people want their public officials to find constructive, equitable partnerships. My hand is outstretched, as is a majority of the School Board, I think. It’s your move, Lake Wales Charter Schools. Let’s build a post-Florida model together.

My phone number is 863-209-4037. My email address is billy.townsend@polk-fl.net. I am eager to talk to anyone willing to talk to me.

2 comments

  1. Kimberly S Wurth

    Good morning Mr.Townsend,

    Thank you for taking the time and making the effort to find out the truth in all of this with. I truly appreciate you.

  2. Mr. Felix Rodriguez

    Thanks for putting things straight. I worked for the last two years at MMS and one thing that put it over other schools I worked at, is the commitment of the teachers towards the students learning, the sense of belonging to a family and the support we felt as teachers in our school. I am out because of an illness and I miss my school, coworkers and kids. Yes, I miss the kids, because even though they are tough, once you gain their trust, they respect you and care for you. I don’t think that letting MMS go to LWCS will help remediate the so called F status of our school. If MMS passes to LWCS it will create a vortex that will absorb all the low income students that might not be able to attend a charter school as such. Then, if they cannot go to MMS, where is the district going to put them? Into far away schools depriving them of their community? I don’t think this to be fair. With all the struggles the school has gone through, it has stood firm for the students in its community and has tried to give the best it can and even surpassed it. Sadly the district seems unaware of it. I don’t think this will solve the problem, only to aggravate it. The district needs to recognize the hard work teacher do there and stop judging them with a faulty system that do not take into consideration many variables that might affect performance. Thanks again for your report.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *