A typical week-in-the-life of the Polk School District

We’re all well aware of the many challenges facing public education. And I write about them constantly. But for one moment, I want to share with you an intimate view of the beauty inherent in so much of what happens on the ground, mostly out of the public eye.

Within our 14,000 or so employees — and endless volunteers — working with 103,000 or so kids, there are so so many people giving everything for non-existent or substandard pay to develop, serve, and challenge young people. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing.

And here’s a little list — from just the last week, just from my personal interactions, where I saw the people of the Polk School District community doing things right on the ground. Or working hard to get to right.

— A teacher named Rhonda Rice brought to my attention a Kathleen High honor student named Aalayah Jones, who is selling homemade pound cakes to raise money for a dance trip to Washington D.C. So I bought one, and I got to meet Aalayah and her dad.

She’s heading off to Bethune Cookman for college and will rule the world benevolently one day. She called Rhonda her “grandma,” with deep affection. Also, the cake is freaking delicious. I asked her, “you made this from scratch?” She looked at me vaguely insulted. “Oh yes, a mix is gross.”

— Last Saturday, I shuffled back and forth between the all-day Polk County JV basketball tournament (my son is on the LHS JV team) and the All-County theater performance event at Polk State College.

Two very different types of crowds and cultures and events — but with very similar commitment from the teachers and coaches and sponsors of both. I can’t count all the school district adults who sacrificed a Saturday to challenge and celebrate kids in sports or drama. And watching kids from differing backgrounds support each other in pursuit of a common purpose is, to me, the holy grail.

Listen to the joy and enthusiasm and support from these kids cheering the success of one of their friends.

At the theater event, each winning performance was repeated at the awards ceremony. All the actors and singers introduced their performances with some clever and enthusiastic take on, “We proudly represent our school.” Several of the seniors added the poignant line, “For the last time.”

— Tuesday, I met with the community school development group met at Crystal Lake Elementary to identify the next steps in making that school happen. There will be a specific public update soon, but we’re getting close. (If Kelli Stargel doesn’t succeed in killing it. Crystal Lake Elementary is on her kill list.) Remember, this is a community project, led and developed by the community in conjunction with the school district.

— Tuesday night was the county’s annual Martin Luther King essay contest. One winning essay, from a young Hispanic boy, said he looks at Dr. King and see that he can be president one day. There are people in our district, every day, encouraging him to think that, encouraging him to write it down and announce it to the public. And check out this picture of award winning saxophonist and Crystal Lake Elementary music teacher, Jazmin Ghent, who played for the crowd. She kills it.

— Even later Tuesday night, I hung out with Jill Bevis, volunteer extraordinaire. She is the president of the Lawton Chiles Middle PTSA and the volunteer “director of basketball operations” for Lakeland High School. She doesn’t even have a kid at Lakeland High. When her son played for LHS a couple years back, she explained, she became so attached to the youngsters in the program that she stayed on to raise money for gear and pre-game meals. And she spends hours and hours supporting and cheering them on. I cannot thank her enough.

— On Thursday, we unveiled the student design competition for a new logo for Polk Schools. We held a symposium on brand thinking and design that hosted more than 150 kids.

This isn’t just a meaningful and practical educational opportunity for our talented kids, it’s a demonstration that we can learn from mistakes and think smarter. A previous brand effort, launched a few years ago, did not go well. This time, our Public Relations people painstakingly put together a terrific, student-centric plan. We recruited multiple design academies from our high schools and local brand experts to mentor them. It costs us nothing. The kids are excited to compete. Our logo is dated and needs refreshing. It’s safe to say that our leadership was nervous about touching this hot brand pot again. But to their credit, they learned from past mistakes and have created a “branding” process that actually enhances our educational brand though its very existence.

— On Friday, several of us attended the All Together Now conference in St. Pete, where we studied how to better protect and serve our LGBTQ kids, who have vastly elevated levels of suicide and depression. There are people in this community and district working hard to address that within the cultural realities of Polk County.

— Friday night, I went to the Bartow High – Lakeland High basketball game. It was senior night for Bartow; and they had a truly moving ceremony. Each senior and his parents got a long, loving narrative from the announcer and then climbed a ladder to take down his name from the varsity roster board. I was struck by the academic accomplishments of many of the senior basketball players.

— And last night was Sophomore Dining Out for Summerlin Academy.

In this annual event, older Summerlin students serve sophomores a fine dining, multi-course experience. The idea is to model etiquette and conversational composure — to expose the kids to formality and ceremony and help them understand how to function elegantly within it.

I love Sophomore Dining Out. I get to hang out for hours with young people experiencing something new. Nobody’s on their phones except for pictures. I get to talk to them about their lives and schools. I traded World War II trivia challenges with one young men. (He stumped me on one. I got him on one.) Another young woman talked about her relatives in Puerto Rico, who still do not have power. Another young man showed me his grandfather’s gold pocket watch, which dressing up formally gave him an excuse to wear. Another young woman explained how she gets to school each morning from North Lakeland. It’s a three-bus odyssey that starts at 5:30 a.m. — every morning. One of our waiters for the night was a young man I sat with last year, who is excited about pursuing a career in law enforcement.

The kids and adults of Summerlin, led by teacher and organizer Kimberly Crandall, worked many shifts at Bucs games to fundraise for Sophomore Dining Out, which no one is charged entry to. Major Crandall and volunteers all over the school and community put hours and hours and hours of time into creating this experience that Summerlin kids are likely to remember forever.

I saw all of that with just own eyes in a pretty typical week.

Think how much else is happening every day that I don’t see. Think how much effort and care the people of public education — all of us — are putting into this mission.

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