The Greater Winter Haven learning community already exists. Let’s build around it.

I saw a beautiful thing Monday night. It reinforced my strong belief in aligning our school leadership with distinct communities through their high school feeder systems.

I was walking the greater Winter Haven community’s homecoming parade with a crew of FFA students and J.V. football players.  I love teenagers — with their armor of cool struggling to cover their vulnerability. Always holding back. Always ready for a selfie. Always complaining — unfairly, i think — about school food. They’re fascinating, even when they’re frustrating. I live with one.

Anyway, I was darting back and forth along Avenue C and Magnolia Street, handing out cards to the crowds lining the parade route. Suddenly, I noticed a dozen or more of the strutting football players rush over to a woman standing on a sidewalk.  They swarmed her with hugs and smiles. These were the coolest dudes in the parade. And they melted like ice cream.

“You must be someone important,” I said to her with a smile.

“I taught most of these boys,” she answered. Indeed.

The parade was moving, and I was the caboose; so I didn’t quite get her name or the school. But I think she was an elementary teacher. Nobody thought or cared about her corrupt and fraudulent VAM score.

It’s a reminder of how the teacher-student bond can reverberate over years and hormones. It’s a reminder of the sacred power that some women can wield over some young men, demanding of them their best selves without demanding. I’m still in touch, as are a number of my classmates, with my fourth grade teacher, Margaret Melzer.

A “community superintendent” for a community system supported by the District

This also illustrates the value of community continuity in education.

So I want to give major kudos to Winter Haven’s Public Education Partnership — especially Doug Lockwood, Tresa Warner, Rebecca Knowles, and Craig Clevenger. They put together Monday night’s joint Winter Haven, Lake Region, All Saints, New Beginnings homecoming parade and Thursday night’s Lip Sync battle.

PEP’s work gave the greater Winter Haven community — in all its shapes and colors — a chance to line its streets and pack its theater to celebrate and support its kids and schools. And the greater Winter Haven community responded.

The Polk School District should respond to the Winter Haven community accordingly.

As I’ve written before, we should treat Winter Haven and Lake Region High and the elementaries and middles that flow into them as a system. Put a “community superintendent” in charge. This is what charter systems do. McKeel and Lake Wales are perfect examples, in different ways. This is an organizational approach worth stealing.

The Polk District can achieve the localization benefit without the battle that comes with fighting for charter branding. We can also build All Saints and New Beginnings into the learning community in various ways. All of these schools and people affect each other. They should be talking to each other and working together regularly. Thanks to PEP, Winter Haven has a strong good community infrastructure in place to facilitate that cross-traditional-charter-private cooperation and mutual respect.

If you want to read more about this, especially in relation to the Stigmatized 5 schools, here’s a link to my first essay about it. 

Hillsborough offers a practical model

My biggest operational question remains: how many high school feeder systems are practical for a community superintendent to oversee?

But since I first proposed this basic structure, I’ve learned that Hillsborough County already has something like this in place for its traditional schools. I asked Hillsborough Superintendent Jeff Eakins about it at the recent Florida Board of Education meeting in Tampa that every Polk School Board member blew off.

Eakins told me that his area superintendents oversee three high school feeder systems. He also told me he chose those superintendents very, very carefully. A multi-layered interview process assessed public leadership skills far beyond educratic curriculum and accountability knowledge. These are not people who hang out in cubicles giving orders.

Doable and necessary

It’s a shame Mr. Berryman didn’t bother to come pick Eakins’ brain. Because Hunt seems to have signed on to this idea. Of course, he’s basically signed onto everything I want to do during campaign season. But I do think that shows this community-organization model is both politically achievable and necessary, no matter who sits on the board.

I remain utterly convinced that if Winter Haven or Lakeland try to go charter along the lines of Lake Wales, they will tear their communities apart. The nature of the process required will guarantee that. Even Lake Wales, which is the perfect size and location for such a system, has a major community divide at the middle school level. And it was the lowest hanging fruit for a charter district.

I would hate to do anything that jeopardizes the community spirit I saw in Winter Haven this week. At the same time, I remain equally convinced that some community is going to try to if we don’t do a much better job of leading schools at the community level — and soon.

So let’s pilot this in Winter Haven — and then replicate it elsewhere.

I imagine the day when a high school can reach out to a struggling student’s favorite elementary teacher for help. As I saw again this week, those are hard people to disappoint. Their presence lingers. And they are the glue of communities.