The Stigmatized 5, part 1: The flesh and blood kids of the Winter Haven High ecosystem are a moral imperative

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The table above contains the schools of the Winter Haven High School ecosystem. These are the schools that feed into Winter Haven High. The names in green and red are magnet or choice schools. The remainder are traditional zoned schools.

Look at the middle schools. What do you notice?

Four of the five traditional middle schools that feed WHHS are on the state’s closure hit list. The fifth, McLaughlin Middle in Lake Wales, is an “F” school this year. (Many of you know that I reject the validity of the destructive and absurd school grade system. I’m just using this for shorthand. And if you wonder why any kids who attend McLaughlin in Lake Wales travel 14 miles away from their homes and parents to attend Winter Haven High, so do I.)

What conclusions might we draw from this ecosystem?

I see three.

1) The teachers and staff of Winter Haven High are probably doing a pretty darn good job to avoid an F. That’s especially true this year — when the state engineered its grade formula yet again to stick it to big public high schools with large poor and minority populations.

[Update] In response to a comment I just received, I want to be clear: this is not an indictment of the teachers at the stigmatized 5. They have committed to the hardest single job in public education. They get very little support and very little stability. We need to build on their moral commitment to our kids. And we need to create an environment that will attract teachers to fill open spots — not replace the people already in place and working hard. I may not have been clear enough in this. I apologize.

2) Expect Winter Haven High to get on the threaten closure list soon. The gravity exerted by what feeds it is too powerful. On the other hand, maybe the state will just cheat to keep it off. After all, these are political, not educational decisions. Threatening poor middle schools with closure is a very different political matter than threatening a city-namesake high school.

3) Indeed, I think the state Department of Education is thoroughly full of hooey. It’s really going to close every non-magnet school that feeds Winter Haven High? Every one? (Believe me, McLaughlin won’t be far behind the other four if this policy approach continues.) And five of seven overall? Where are those 4,000 kids — plus McLaughlin — going to go? Who wants them? People run away from them like Ebola now. You’re going to send them all to Auburndale? Or Lake Wales? Or Haines City? DoE certainly won’t take responsibility for any of those kids. It believes in distant judgement, not moral responsibility.

I suppose some fly-by-night charter company could roll in to cash in on the distress, like a vulture capital firm in a bankruptcy. But I doubt the practicality even of that.

A different vision

I watched a bit of the District’s presentation to state DoE about the stigmatized schools. What I saw was pointlessness on all sides. I need to watch the whole thing again to be certain. But I saw no evidence of any plan from anyone at any level that ever actually asked: “What’s best for these 4,000 flesh and blood kids and their families?” It’s like they have no inherent value beyond the numbers they can throw off.

Well, I disagree profoundly with that. And here are the broad strokes of my vision for the Winter Haven High learning community:

1) Put our best administrator (I don’t know who that is) in charge of the Winter Haven High ecosystem/learning community. Treat Winter Haven High and the elementaries and middles that flow into it as a system. This is what charter systems do. McKeel and Lake Wales are perfect examples, in different ways. We can achieve the localization benefit without the battle that comes with fighting for charter branding.

We can pilot this at Winter Haven and then replicate it elsewhere. Where feeder schools send populations to different places, include them in the high school system in which most of their kids eventually enroll.

In addition to better aligning district and school leadership with Polk’s real communities, this will help us bring stigmatized and segregated schools out of isolation. We’ll include them into a coherent learning community, where every principal and teacher has an interest in performance of its fellow schools.

In a coherent learning community, for instance, the district magnet schools will have much less room to drop kids who struggle back into traditional schools. They’ll have to answer to their fellow principals and system leader if they do. Just last week, the district allowed a girl to stay at her magnet school after I wrote about its decision to drop her. Pressure — including peer pressure — can work.

2) Engage relentlessly with Winter Haven’s Public Education Partnership (PEP), the outstanding public education support organization formed by Doug Lockwood. I love my adopted home town of Lakeland. But we have nothing as organized and committed to school support as PEP in Winter Haven. See link to information here. The community support is there. We need to engage it better on a daily basis than we are now.

3) Make teacher recruitment and environmental stability the top priorities of the learning community. One of these schools has had seven principals in 10 years. Another, I was told, had at least 10 teacher units filled with subs all year long. (That’s a hard fact to verify; but we need to be tracking it closely and making it a key metric for our own evaluation criteria.) We need to ask experienced, effective teachers from all over the district to come where they’re most needed. It will be much easier to fill jobs in schools our recruits leave than in those they join.

4) Focus teacher mentoring and support. I was happy to learn that 2015 Florida Teacher-of-the-Year Christie Bassett, whom I met for the first time last week, is returning to Polk’s schools as part of a grant-funded teacher mentoring program. It’s a good idea; but it has limited resources. We should focus all of those resources on the Winter Haven High ecosystem. That’s where they’re most needed. And these teacher mentors need to be in the schools, aggressively supporting and helping. What message would it send to have a Florida Teacher-of-the-Year committed daily to one of those schools threatened with closure?

5) Engage All Saints. Think about a private school experience and model of instruction — one heavy on experience and enrichment. If the things that make learning joyful — play, exploration, humanity — are good enough for kids at All Saints, why aren’t they good enough for the kids at Denison? Forget vouchers. Just steal the better parts of what private schools do. So what if instruction doesn’t line up perfectly with Florida standards. It’s not like lining it up rigidly is showing much benefit for anyone now. Let’s try creating an environment that treats these 4,000 kids as if they have inherent value worth developing as people — not numbers. More on this in part 2.

6) Evaluate performance at these schools relative to their predicted performance. The state is going to do and require what it does and requires. Fine. We’ll go through the motions for its stupid, pointless, cruel, child-stigmatizing measurements.

Then we’ll evaluate for ourselves which schools are overachieving and which aren’t. We can do this because all research shows a rigid correlation between free and reduced lunch population and median test score. In the past, I found that poorer schools in Polk and elsewhere tended to overachieve prediction and that wealthier schools underachieved. I would like to test that with real statisticians. I want to know who is overachieving and who isn’t.

My own sense, just eyeballing it, is that Winter Haven High’s staff is overachieving, considering that those men and women answer the deeply moral obligation of teaching kids from five of the six most stigmatized middle schools in Polk County. If you work there, you have my gratitude and respect.

A question of morality

There’s no magic in those priorities and ideas. But there is a commitment to ownership. And I hope there is a recognition that the lives of these 4,000 souls are moral obligations for all of us.

The state simply does not share the concern for those 4,000 souls. They aren’t souls at all to the state DoE; they’re spreadsheet cells and political fodder. Over time, that cynicism has seeped down into our district. Let’s reverse it.

If you’re in Winter Haven, and you’d like to discuss these ideas, please come see us Sunday afternoon from 4 to 6 at the Derry Down in Downtown.

16 thoughts on “The Stigmatized 5, part 1: The flesh and blood kids of the Winter Haven High ecosystem are a moral imperative

  1. I will focus my comments on LAAMS because of my brief history with a school during the 14-15 school year as an 8th grade science instructor for a majority of level 1 kids. Two years removed from JAM Dr. Linda Ray took on the challenge of being the principal at LAAMS. She convinced me, along with a few others, to join her in saving these souls. Look at her data showing improvement each year of a school that during the 14-15 school year drew from 22 elementary feeder schools. Look at the decrease in referrals. I could go on but Dr. Ray can’t because she was, I’ll put it nicely, forced out by the same people that would “visit” my classroom with nothing but criticism not knowing one child in that room. The last time they dared to spend less than 5 minutes with my kids I refused to respond to our review. Why was I doing a 7th grade standard using old outdated textbooks? I’ll respond here. The old books laying out as a resource on lab tables can be used as a reference for many more years considering the laws of physics being investigated, using a kinesthetic inquiry activity, will continue to be applicable. As for the 7th grade standard, quality not quantity, especially KNOWING my kid’s had NOT ONE certified science instructor the past two years, let alone reading etc. Dr. Ray trusted me to do the best I could do for our kids based on my experience and track record. I reciprocated that trust when I gave up the “perfect ” magnet school job at JAM. I apologize for my lengthy post. However, when the state is bashing people I know and respect I must set the record straight. I dare them to walk in our shoes! I watched the entire presentation by Polk and the other counties… twice…Jeb Bush politics on steroids 🙁

    1. Kudos to you for your work at LAAMS and for speaking up for Dr. Ray, an invaluable resource disrespected and disregarded by the district. My good friend Ms. Campbell worked there as well and always had great things to say about Dr. Ray and the greatness she brought to that school. I loved the idea of posting what book you all were reading outside of your classrooms, so I took that back to Crystal Lake Middle with me, but oh I wish it was a school wide effort like I saw at Lake Alfred. I remember the year you all went up 22 points! But Leroy came, and all she and the district focused on was the grade, Smh. Now she’s gone and I really wish the district would go back and reverse many of the personnel changes made under her, as in Dr. Rays case. But of course, fat chance

    2. Sarah,
      Kudos to you for trying to turn LAAMS around and getting behind Dr. Ray. She recruited a friend of mine as well. He taught Earth Science. After 2 years of the state meddling, he left. I’ve left a high-achieving school where I was highly-effective and have gone to a school in need of improvement. I was then downgraded to effective with several needs improvements in three areas on my final evaluation. I was treated like a poor teacher, with disrespect and had more work to do. I left said school and went to an A school. I’ve taught the same way and I’m highly effective and treated with respect and dignity. What good teachers want to go into Boone or LAAMS and be treated poorly, deal with a multitude of disciplinary issues and have every little thing questioned? Nobody!

  2. The teachers in struggling schools need a different staffing plan than other schools….32 kids per classroom for under achieving students is too much and won’t be successful.

  3. Knowing that the WHHS staff is committed to both the children and community, and knowing that the current principal has a very challenging task of running this high school, their current D-grade for 2015-16 is not reflective of that school’s culture…more resources need to be pipelined to the entire feeder pattern.

  4. Our school district is too big. One example of things going wrong is that many of the these middle schools would go to Frostproof. Frostproof has gotten kids from Lake Wales, Haines City, and Winter Haven since they have been stable at a C. So kids get up around 3am and then ride three different buses to arrive at Frostproof at 6:30am.
    Winter Haven schools should consider doing a type of charter. My daughter attends Bok Academy and I love how the kids are treated in that environment. Kids are getting reading and math shoved down there throat. Kids have no idea how there country started. Most think the nations capital in the state of Washington and about 25% do not know what the 4th of July is about. It is time for the people to rise up and stop relying on our government. It is time for the people to rise up and correct the standards that our kids need to learn at school.

  5. All Winter Haven schools should go charter, based on the Lake Wales model. Financially, it would work. Academically, it would get the schools and the teachers and administrators out from under the county office.

    1. Yes, but Lake Region is part of the Winter Haven system. It’s half of Winter Haven tends to be higher socioeconomically. But why should the two schools (or any of the schools in the county) ‘compete’ with each other?

  6. Our community needs to take more stock in our schools too. It’s not just up to the teachers, administrators, and staff to make schools succeed. It is also the responsibility of the parents, students, and community at large. It really does take a village! Our district also needs to allow teachers to more easily grow in the district. Many teachers have Master’s degrees and above in various aspects of education. But if you lack an educational leadership degree you will likely never see outside of a classroom. It’s unfair because there are so many qualified people in our district who could make a real difference at an administrative or district level if given the opportunity. On the flip side of that though, we are too top heavy. We have too many administrators and yet not enough teachers. We should focus on filling empty teacher positions before we focus on administrative positions like APII’s (aka Dean positions). I speak as a mother of 2 and a classroom teacher in PCSB teacher.

  7. 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.

  8. Ok guys, how does this strike your thought patterns? Isn’t part, a large part of the grading of public schools a function of all of the charter schools, academies, vouchers and the like, draining the intelligencia (sp) away from public schooled community that leaves failing schools, failing? And what about state intervention by youngsters and uninformed professionals as to the schools populations’ ability and desire to learn? And this has lead to the schools continuing to fail? Get to the heart of the problem people.

  9. In my experience, redistricting or reassigning middle school students from poor schools to “better’ schools, which also often results in equalizing racial populations, the results were disastrous for students. When they did that in my school, students who were moved away from their “good” school, frequently did not attend that “bad”school, but opted for an alternative: private, home school or charter while those who went from “poor” schools to “good” schools found themselves way behind grade level, and without resources to catch up.
    In my opinion, a far better solution is to invest heavily in “bad” schools, incenting great, innovative teachers and administrators (rigorously screened and selected) to teach in them using smaller class loads, more resources in materials, technology, and money for experiential learning (field trips, robotics competition clubs, speakers, etc.), and a bonus for teachers who can demonstrate increased student performance in one or more areas. (attendance, test scores, grades, projects, etc). There are national models in several inner city schools. jus’ sayin’

  10. I would like to know what the plan is for students with constant behavior issues. I’m talking about the kids who act out daily and violently…yes, they do exist. No one is held responsible for their behavior and schools seem powerless to do anything about it. Is it ok for staff to be cussed at, hit, and have things thrown at them? How are they supposed to focus on other things if they constantly have to deal with behavior issues? Also, schools can’t do anything with parents who only view them as places that provide free child care and free meals. Staff can be changed out but the socioeconomic conditions and blasé attitudes will remain. Education is not valued by a large portion of our community.

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