The Roosevelt process: good government is often messy

Roosevelt Academy in Lake Wales is an anomaly. It’s essentially a 6-12th grade district magnet school for ESE students. It’s not actually a magnet school; but that’s what it most closely resembles in enrollment structure. There are few, if any, similar schools in Florida.

Kids apply to the Roosevelt program, which for many, many years has quietly provided a job skills and vocational program built around the ESE special diploma. As long as the special diploma existed, no one paid Roosevelt much attention. So it was able to largely shape its enrollment and education model with very little interference.

The push for change

Florida is now doing away with the special diploma option that Roosevelt has used. I don’t want to jump headfirst into that debate here. But here’s the reasoning: the special diploma limits what its holders can do. They can’t serve in the military, for instance. The fear is that allowing the special diploma limits what ESE students can achieve with proper support and inclusion with general education population.

The counterargument is that they often don’t get proper support and end up dropping out of general education and life.  Roosevelt advocates generally come down on the anti-drop-out side of that. And the school has created a unique and calm environment, with very impressive experiential agriculture and vocational programs that seem to engage its kids.

Here are a couple of pictures of the hydroponics the kids help operate and the woodworking products they’ve created.

Of course, ESE, like so many educratic words, contains multitudes. And the experience of an ESE student, like any student, isn’t an either/or proposition. Ideally, all students get the support they need to thrive as best they can. The two schools of thought above need not be in conflict. But there are limited resources to spend. And that leads us to the Roosevelt question.

How governing should work

Roosevelt’s future is a complex and thorny question, in which many people with different points-of-view make good arguments.

Thanks to the public process that is occurring, we’re getting to hear all of them. And it’s helping shape a future. It’s not necessarily fun. There was a fairly tense public meeting this week in which district leadership and my fellow board member Lynn Wilson took questions and heat from Roosevelt parents. Madison Fantozzi with The Ledger has a good account of the back-and-forth. I wasn’t there.

During the meeting, one parent said: “This was all done in a hush-hush way. It’s shady.”

That is simply not true.  There has been ongoing engagement on all sides for months.  I personally have been discussing Roosevelt publicly and privately with its advocates since August, while I was campaigning. As have many other people at the district and even in state government.

If the Polk District staff wanted to be shady, it would have brought the preliminary plan it released recently directly to the School Board for an up or down vote. District leaders could have just blamed the state and thrown up their hands and dropped this in the School Board’s lap for political cover. I suspect that would have happened under Kathryn LeRoy.

Instead, our evolving district leadership laid out a plan, provided a timeline for public engagement, and facilitated the engagement, which is ongoing. And it’s having an effect on the plan. Our brand new chief academic officer Michael Akes stood in front of Roosevelt teachers and took direct public heat.

That’s not shady. That’s how governing should work. Governing means listening and explaining to the public; making tough choices; and then facing the public. That’s what I ran to do. That’s the type of culture change I’m hoping to help deliver at the Polk District. So I am very pleased with the performance of district senior staff in the Roosevelt process. I think they have worked in good faith. And I’m grateful to Lynn Wilson for his presence at the meeting.

True public engagement is rarely tidy. It can lead to confusing messaging and muddled understanding. That’s what happens when lots of human beings bend their minds toward a complex issue. When there is good faith, as there has been here, we can work together toward clarifying the issues and finding the path forward.

And I think this process makes a very nice dry run for the much more fraught Bok-McLaughlin engagement to come.

A friendly challenge to the Roosevelt family 

Roosevelt’s activism and the district’s willingness to listen and adjust has paid off. The Roosevelt experience is a thing that’s now widely valued. Having visited the school a couple of times, I value it. I also recognize some of the issues at work in reshaping the experience for the future.

Roosevelt Principal Debra Edwards, whom I’ve met and like very much, said this during the public meeting, according to Madison Fantozzi’s story.

“But what bothers me is why we should have to worry … why there would be a need to re-evaluate,” she said. “We’ve been doing this for more than 30 years — it works.”

With respect, I don’t see this type of thinking as viable, especially in the ESE space. We live in a very different world than we did 30 years ago. We need to constantly, productively, reasonably, and fairly evaluate what we’re doing and how it benefits kids.

As Roosevelt moves forward, I personally see three overarching issues. I challenge the Roosevelt family to consider and address them in the next couple years.

  1. The admission process is overly selective. No magnet, charter, or choice school gets to screen its applicants as closely as Roosevelt does. There is a massive middle ground between “dumping ground” and hand-picked enrollment. We need to find that middle ground together. Perhaps we establish a formal magnet-school lottery/waitlist framework. That’s just one idea.
  2. The Roosevelt experience both nurtures and limits its kids. This is the special diploma conundrum. One of the arguments for eliminating the middle school at Roosevelt is that 6th grade is too early to essentially declare a child unable to finish a regular high school. I feel certain Roosevelt folks will disagree that 6th grade enrollment reflects such a decision. But we need to make sure that the benefits of the Roosevelt experience do not impose unnecessary social and educational limits.
  3. Please don’t market Roosevelt by insulting other children and families.  Madison’s story about the public meeting paraphrased a parent saying “she worries students from traditional public schools have picked up bad behavior from their peers.” That’s not a quote; and I wasn’t there. So it’s hard to comment with certainty. But this is an issue everywhere. The special school/branded school/traditional school divide — and the assumptions that come with it — are perhaps the greatest single issue in Polk County education. Bok-McLaughlin will be a massive test case for whether we can take a step toward improving it. Roosevelt presents itself as a safe, calm place. And I understand that appeal. But parents and staff can do that without stigmatizing other school communities. And I expect them to.

I hope the Roosevelt community sees me as a friend. I consider myself one. I consider myself a friend of every school community. But I feel a special bond with Roosevelt. We were sort of insurgents together.

However, it’s comparatively easy to fight and resist and point out what’s wrong or unfair. It’s much harder to take that energy and use it to lead and build.

I’m trying to make that transition on the School Board.

Roosevelt has now earned the responsibility to lead, too. I know how fiercely that community loves its kids. So let’s take that love — what’s worked for 30 years — and merge it with new possibilities.  Be the experts in your field. You have a very unique model. Let’s expand its possibilities together.







1 thought on “The Roosevelt process: good government is often messy

  1. Roosevelt has an overly selective admission process for a reason. I don’t like to make assumptions but from that statement i would guess you don’t have a disabled child. You can be on the outside & see how the process goes & how the students are at school but if you do not live with a child with disabilites 365 days a yr you cannot fully understand the struggles. From 1st to 5th grade being in school where you feel you’re always behind, where kids tease you for not fitting in, crying every night because you just don’t understand your homework, cant even make eye contact with people but you just don’t feel confident in yourself, not having friends like everyone else but they don’t get you, because you’re different from them. That’s how ‘regular’ school is for Roosevelt students. But when they start school in 6th grade & months into the school year they see that the other kids are like them, they have friends & are accepted, having school work at their level, taught in a way they understand, asd parents we see a change in our kids. They start to like school, which we never thought would be humanly possible, they make friends, again thinking it would never happen, they start making eye contact when talking to people, slowly they come out of their shell & start to resemble the kid you were raising before they needed to go to school, before life got too much harder for them. Yes Roosevelt might be the only school with such a process but like Ms Edwards said at the meeting, it works. Without that process our kids might not be succeeding like they are. I cant speak for other parents but I don’t think you fully understand the statement about being fearful our kids could be bullied by other students. Its not insulting other families or children, we know that not all kids bully but schools dont seperate bullying students all to the left, non bullying students to the right. Okay, now you stay in your groups. But that is a positive thing that Roosevelt has for the disabled students, the children & parents know it is a safe haven & bullying will not be tolerated. I have 3 other children in Polk County Schools. They have been through different schools in the disctrict & we moved from PA which between the 4 of them we’ve had experience with 2 other schools. Stating that bullying is an issue in other schools is not stigmatizing them, no schools were named & it is just stating facts. Every other school in the district services main stream students & they meet the needs of the children in attendance. All we are asking is the same for our children. To continue attending the ONE school that was designed to attend to OUR childrens needs. Our children deserve to have the same rights as main stream students that dont have the disabilites our children have. And my other 3 children are in mainstream Polk County Schools, 2 of them were/are in Honor & AP programs one was even accepted into the IB program. We are not bashing other schools, I just want the same treatment that my non disabled children get as my disabled son. And regarding 6th grade being too early to decide that they are unable to attend mainstream is not how it works. If you are familiar with the IEP program every yr we meet together, the student, parents & faculty that directly work with our children & discuss such things. From 6th to 8th we discuss what goals our child needs to accomplish or work towards. Then the IEP meeting between 8th & 9th grade we discuss if the student should transition into mainstream school or not. & students do transition back, my son had 3 friends that transferred & are doing quite well in school. Roosevelt isnt about trapping the student & holding them back. They are there to teach our children & prepare them for the real world. To teach them to be productive people in society. I am not a parent that has other students eligible or needing Roosevelts education my son is a Senior this yr. He will be graduating in May. I know not to your standards or Florida state standards but I did not always think this would be happening. I am not worried about my son not succeeding or progressing, the teachers have a genuine interest for my son & he sees that & not only feels like he has our family to rely on but them also. He started Roosevelt in 6th grade & is a senior. He rides 1 1/2 hours to school & 1 1/2 hours home everyday. When hes not working he wakes up at 5am to get the bus & he does not & has not complained about it. His brothers & sister have a 5-10 min commute to school & are always home before him but he doesn’t complain about that either. He was offered & it was discussed for him to attend their HS but with his disablilites & what Roosevelt offered compared to our local school Roosevelt was the better fit & we’ve never regretted or questioned our decision. I will always stand with Roosevelt & advocate for/with them. If it wasnt for them I dont know where my son would be.

Comments are closed.