Swimming hard against the stream in Polk, part 1: A district, and a superintendent, on the rise

Please watch this outstanding year-end wrap-up message from Polk Superintendent Jackie Byrd. It recounts Polk district successes from last two years. But more importantly for me, it signals a new confidence and purpose in facing longstanding human challenges that face our district and others. I’m very excited about it.

Key quote: “We are truly a district on the rise. That’s why it’s time to dig in and address some of the biggest challenges facing our school-based personnel and students.”

This pivot toward a confident self-criticism has been one of my top organizational goals as a board member. I’m thrilled to hear it articulated. Mrs. Byrd goes on to discuss the important new comprehensive behavior response plan unveiled last week, which I’ll come back to in a moment.

67 salmon swimming against the Tallahassee grifter current

But first, I have an analogy to further detail what Mrs. Byrd means with “on the rise.”

In Florida, all 67 county school districts are like salmon swimming upstream against the current created by the grifters and Pastor Tigers and Arzas and “legislators” in Richard Corcoran’s Tallahassee. If that current does not change, we will, eventually, run out of strength, disgorge our eggs, and die. All of us, from Monroe to Orange to Escambia. That Tallahassee current is inexorable. And it has a goal: death. We need to be clear-eyed about this.

It’s our job, as public education advocates and leaders, to keep swimming as hard as we can at the local level, to stay alive, so that when the current finally changes, we’re able to take full advantage.

Because these are political questions, not educational questions, only you, the public, can truly save community-based public education. You’ve already begun to. The public’s current has already changed. It supported all 20-plus local educational tax referenda across Florida in 2018, including Polk’s construction referendum.

Despite that, the grifters in Tallahassee are pushing their luck and their grift — as grifters are apt to do. In doing so, dear public, they’re flipping you the finger so they can give your money to Ralph Arza charter schools and Pastor Tiger voucher schools.

I wish I was exaggerating. Here’s Richard Corcoran from yesterday announcing that he wants the authority to seize your public schools and give them to grifters. We know all about this in Polk County. We’ve been through the Kelli Stargel School Kill List — and fought it off in 2018. Mrs. Byrd and her staff created a very skillful plan, which was essentially non-compliant, and helped by my insistence that we dare Kelli and the state to close our schools. The state caved. It’s one of Mrs. Byrd’s cleverer and lesser-discussed accomplishments. See this essay. Key quote:

The state’s Kelli Stargel school closure list was pretty clear about the choices it imposed on us. Close the school; close and reopen as a charter without neighborhood zoning; or do some other weird outsourcing move in which nobody who works at the school can be a school district employee. We didn’t choose any of that. We’re not firing anybody. We’re not turning the school over to an outside operator. We’re contracting for some personnel help. And supposedly, the state seems OK with that, as does Kelli Stargel. I suspect that’s because they didn’t want this political fight in an election year. And that’s why I decided to vote for our non-compliant plan.

The Ron DeSantis/Richard Corcoran School Kill List will be much bigger and much more geographically comprehensive. Listen to Corcoran talk. He’s coming for your graduations, your school plays, the teachers who care about your kids. And he’s coming for your tax money. Only you can really stop him.

The near death and new life of Polk’s little salmon

In late 2015, at the end of the Kathryn LeRoy debacle, Polk’s little salmon had basically given up and stopped swimming. The Tallahassee current was shoving it backward. It was drowning and headed for the bottom.

No lesser authority than Ralph Arza himself told me at the most recent Florida School Boards Association conference that he done polling for the 2016 School Board races and that the public considered the Polk district a “laughingstock.” He also told me that has now changed significantly, according to new polling. Do with that information, which I cannot verify, what you will. Consider the source.

But I think the overwhelming public support of Polk’s construction and maintenance sales tax vote in 2018 suggests that Arza is essentially correct.

In any event, the rebellion from the public and staff that rid us of LeRoy and propelled my campaign started us swimming again. It’s what led to the hiring of Mrs. Byrd, which pre-dated my election, and to the reinvigoration of the School Board as a governing entity that cares deeply about public engagement and transparency.

Overall, our little Polk salmon, recently quite dead, is now swimming upstream pretty valiantly, faster than the average Florida salmon on many fronts. We are catching salmon that were ahead of us. That’s quite an accomplishment, which I think everyone in the district and community who cares about education can claim.

District accomplishments to date under Mrs. Byrd’s leadership

From the moment she took over as leader, Mrs. Byrd improved the public bearing of the district. Her  ability to connect personally to people in the community is an unquestioned strength for which I have often praised her. That has gone a long way toward rebuilding the support of important local stakeholders. I often use the word “graceful” to describe how she interacts with the public in public settings. It is a great talent.

Moreover, graduation rate and total school/district grade points have increased in the last two years at a pace significantly higher than the state average.

If you read me at all, you’ll know that I don’t value those numbers as indicators. Indeed, I consider school grades open fraud, which go up and down as a whole at the whim of Tallahassee’s political need. They are what allows the Kelli Stargel and Richard Corcoran School Kill Lists to become a thing.

For example: the state clearly manipulated the numbers in 2018 year to make school grades go up across the state in an election year across the state. Doubt me? Then why were third grade Reading scores — supposedly all important — down across the state? Why are roughly 50 percent of Florida kids considered “proficient” in Reading, but more than 70 percent considered “proficient” in Civics, a reading-based discipline. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ It’s all a fraud.

Emphasizing these manipulatable numbers — and ignoring the human environment in schools — helps create that Tallahassee current that all the district salmon struggle against.

However, try as I might, I don’t yet rule the state.

Mrs. Byrd still must address these numbers — and what the state does with them to abuse our kids and people. So it’s practically important that the numbers for Polk in the last two years have improved at a significantly faster rate than the state as a whole, even if I think this whole governance model is a malignantly rigged game, which I do. In a couple of very smart moves, we adjusted both the progression of when students take Civics and how long we give kids to take Algebra 1. Essentially, we gave them more time to learn in Algebra 1 and delayed testing in Civics to allow for another year of reading development. Both moves paid off — and can actually benefit kids.

To sum up: we have shored up the support of major public stakeholders in the county; we have gotten Tallahassee off our backs, to some extent, with the numbers, although our people suffered terribly for it; and we’ve begun to demand that our legislators perform less badly, with some results.

And the new district branding, led by PR director Rachel Pleasant, was a stroke of public-facing genius. It became a virtually cost-free, community-driven, educational opportunity for our kids. And it coincided perfectly with the sense of change and energy that Mrs. Byrd and the post-2016 board members have brought.

A pivot toward attacking organizational and human problems, starting with behavioral support and leadership culture

So that’s the crucial context for Mrs. Byrd’s characterization of this moment as a turning point.

As the next step in the progression she describes, I would highly recommend that you watch as much of our most recent work session as you can. It is meaty and significant. You will see that it focuses almost entirely on human climate in our schools and the organizational culture of our district. Where there have been public tensions between me and Mrs. Byrd and the previous board, they have emerged from these issues.

One of the truly unfortunate aspects of the BridgePrep fiasco at our last regular meeting is that it overshadowed this very, very productive work session.

The behavior and humanity plan

The behavioral plan, long (probably too long) under development, was the most important part of the meeting. The plan itself is comprehensive, with multiple elements. I’d encourage you to watch the full discussion, which begins at 28:20.

Here are the highlights, as I see them:

  1. Elevated leadership priority for behavior: Perhaps most importantly, this plan makes behavioral and human climate in schools a top organizational priority for senior district leadership. All of the various strands of the plan roll up to Deputy Superintendent John Hill. This emphasis is a direct consequence of the strategic plan discussion from earlier this year. It’s a big deal because it swims against the Tallahassee current. Remember, your state government and Ron DeSantis/Richard Corcoran’s DoE do not care about the human environment in public schools. They care about gameable and dishonest numbers they can use as weapons.

Improving and sustaining the behavioral climate in a school — which is a big part of the work environment — is a tough challenge that requires constant attention, leadership and support. And as a principal or administrator or teacher, you won’t get any credit for it in your evaluation or pay. That’s because Tallahassee wants behavioral stresses in public schools. These stresses help Tallahassee market against public schools to sell their Pastor Tiger or BridgePrep grifts.

Elevating behavioral environment to a top leadership priority, under strong pressure and direction from the board, is a cultural breakthrough for the Polk School District. Sustaining it will take administrative and political courage — because none of us will get credit for it in the number-based fraud of the Florida Model.

2) Humanity teams: Some time ago, I talked about my fantasy of creating six-or-seven person “humanity teams” for every school. Their only jobs would be to help with the human well-being of students and behavioral climate of schools. Obviously, we do not have the manpower to do this. However, the new plan organizes five of these humanity teams — and puts them into a sort of rapid response SWAT model. And it provides a clear protocol for schools to ask for help. These teams will go in to schools to provide tangible help, not high-level consultation to teachers and staff. I questioned Michael Akes, our chief academic officer and key architect of the plan, about this. He was adamant that these teams will be hands-on, problem-solving, force-multipliers. My exchange with Akes at 1:34:00 is crucial to this discussion. Please watch it.

Key quote from Akes:

“That’s what we learned real quick [in discussions with school staff]. It’s not going to the school and tell them they’ve got a problem. It’s going to the school to help them solve the problem. And we don’t leave that school until the problem is solved. That’s really a mind shift.”

Indeed, it is. I’m very excited about it. If we’re able to implement and execute this effectively, it marks a sea change in the human culture and common purpose of the district.

3) A well-designed protocol: The protocol itself is very smart, from what I can tell. There is a clear, one-stop intake. From there, the behavioral issue is assessed by its nature: is it more of an individual child struggling with extreme disruptive behaviors? Or is it an overall climate/environment at the school? Is bullying or cruelty involved? The responses will be tailored to the problem. [I suspect, without knowing, that bullying elements were added in response to the some of the recent issues that made news. As I said, good things come of difficult conversations.]

4) Moving from compliance to experience: There are a ton of ESE reforms that are complex — and that I feel like I need to better understand before trying to describe them in shorthand. But my colleague, Board Member Lisa Miller, who is a walking ESE encyclopedia and advocate, was pleased. As she said during the meeting, this plan begins to move away from box-checking compliance to more focused attention to fixing real problems.

What do Lisa and I mean when we talk about moving past basic compliance?

Consider referrals, which are the core measurement unit of behavior and discipline. As we discussed at some length during the work session, these are easily gameable as measurements. If reducing referrals is your goal, the easiest way to achieve the goal is to stop writing them. And there are often pressures for teachers and staff to do that — or for school leaders not to process them. That “improves” the measurement; but it doesn’t address the underlying, real issues at work. And it’s incredibly demoralizing to staff.

So I’m really encouraged that this plan is looking to go beyond gameable measures to genuinely affect experiences. I’m equally encouraged that staff repeatedly emphasized the importance of flexibility. This plan is fluid, not static. It will be subject to ongoing trial and error and evaluation, because this is hard human work.

That desire, to improve real human experiences, has driven every School Board political campaign in Polk County since 2016. Overwhelmingly, this is what the Polk County public has voted for, not Richard Corcoran’s nonsense.

So guess what: elections have consequences.

A risk worth taking on leadership culture and becoming a better employer

A second big part of this pivot to human climate came at 2:06:06, roughly. It’s probably going to be more controversial than the behavior plan.

In essence, we’re paying an organizational leadership consultant, Emily Rogers, to lead a year-plus long organizational culture assessment and development process among our top leaders. It could cost up to $85,000 or so. It’s built around 360 degree feedback of top leaders, listening to the people who answer to our leaders, and instilling a sense of productive cultural self-criticism.

But I can hear the social media eyerolling right now: you’re going to pay a consultant to teach your leaders how to lead? Anticipating that, I questioned Rogers and staff pretty hard during the meeting, starting about 2:28:45, on a number of fronts. Please watch it. I summed up like this:

“I see evidence just today of some good cultural change. This will all be an ongoing process; but it needs to be a real process. If it’s not real, if it’s just go through the motions, then we’re all at risk for it. So let’s make it real.”

I’m willing to risk general consultant-hatred and support this for several important reasons:

  1. It is responsive: I’ve been advocating relentlessly for — and trying to drive — a beneficial change in Polk’s longstanding organizational leadership culture. At our last strategic plan meeting, the School Board as a whole emphasized leadership and workplace environment as crucial issues. So now here is Superintendent Byrd, and the senior staff, all of whom are comparatively new to Polk, taking steps to address a priority for me and the board. I think I owe it to them — and to my own commitments — to support their effort and give them a fair chance to show results from it.

2) An investment in stakeholder quality of life: I view this as investment in the quality of life of the people who answer to these leaders. If we can instill and sustain a transformed culture of collaboration and constructive self-criticism from our senior leadership, it will translate to better quality of life for our employees. It will make us a better employer. And that will enhance the experience for the kids we serve.

3) Transcending incentives at scale is very, very hard: Achieving number 2 is not as easy as you would think. And it’s not because anybody is an inherently bad person or leader. That’s why “you’re going to pay a consultant to teach your leaders how to lead” is not correct, in my view. Instead, we’re trying to create a leadership culture that transcends the bad, inhuman organizational incentives that are imposed both from Tallahassee and the cultural history here. We’re trying to instill an institutional leadership culture of swimming hard against the stream. I think that effort is worth the money, the help, and the personal political risk.

Because the Florida Model is so defined by gameable numbers, it takes Herculean administrative effort to emphasize a culture of humanity and development. The time and energy our school leaders devote to strengthening school climate, behavior, and humanity is, literally, time they cannot spend driving up the gameable numbers to secure their jobs.

In taking time to really work through behavioral and climate issues, we’re asking them to put themselves at risk personally and professionally. Many, many, many leaders do that instinctively. But it is not fair to just assume that everyone transcends their personal and professional incentives. And at the same time, nothing in local public services matches the scrutiny and daily potential for human disaster as taking responsibility for 105,000 children and the adults who serve them every day. In any district. Anywhere.

That is why Jackie Byrd has the toughest administrative leadership job in Polk County, bar none.

To effectively re-orient culture around all of that probably requires a focused effort led by an honest broker. It requires leadership to listen and perceive the points-of-view of the people they lead in a systematic way. I’m hoping that Emily Rogers will do that for us. I’m encouraged that she’s not actually an education person — but an organizational leadership expert.

I think a lot of educational leaders would benefit from people-friendly development approaches that big knowledge organizations and businesses follow. Those places tend to be good places to work because they need good people, just like we do. I know that from personal experience. And I’m willing to risk the downside of this for the potential upside or becoming a better workplace.

Why would I want to fire a superintendent popular with the public, whose progression increasingly pleases me?

Some unknown number of people out there in the world seem to think I want to fire Superintendent Byrd. This bemuses me. I have said in about a million different ways and places that this is not true. I’m pleased with her ongoing progression. Folks can say a lot about me; but I don’t think I’m known for being devious. I’m not very good at hiding what I think. So I don’t generally try.

And yet, a prominent local person came up to me last weekend at an event and said, “You know, there are some people out there who think you want to fire the superintendent.”

I responded, “Yes, I know. It’s not true. I’ve said it publicly. I’ve said it to her. I can’t control what a few people want to think. They can call me to ask anytime they want.”

Maybe the oddest example of this came at the end of our last meeting. A handful of public commenters came to defend Mrs. Byrd from something or someone. I have no idea what or who. They didn’t say. The whole thing was vague and weird. It may have been in response to some very mild public coaching I offered on how the district responds and communicates with the public in issues like the recent bullying discussion.

Or maybe it was about BridgePrep; but no one said that, either. And my beef over the BridgePrep fiasco is with my fellow board members who voted to revisit and approve it, not Mrs. Byrd. Mrs. Byrd did not recommend that they revisit the vote; Ralph Arza did.

Anyway, I’m not going to waste much time and effort speculating. I only know that I was very happy with that day’s work session and the general sense of direction I was hearing — and said so to the crowd.

Of public coaching, creative tension, and creative collaboration

This vague perception that I’m out to get the superintendent most likely traces to the Tenoroc and K12 issues that came to a head about a year ago. No need to rehash them here. But I stand by every action I took 110 percent. I make no apologies for drawing a hard public line on providing a decent workplace, holding power accountable, and doing the public’s business with the public’s money honorably.

I think those hard public lines have affected our culture for the better. I think they’ve contributed to Mrs. Byrd’s leadership on the reforms that have me excited today.

And anybody who thinks I’m secretly trying to fire Mrs. Byrd fundamentally misunderstands how I see my role. To explain it, I’m going to risk a sports metaphor.

Imagine that the Polk School District is your favorite team. Mrs Byrd is the captain and star player. She has seven coaches, chosen by the public that owns this team. I’m one of them. As the captain and star player, the success of the team depends largely on Mrs. Byrd’s performance. It’s my job to set high, but reasonable expectations, and then coach her on meeting and exceeding them. When I say that we can execute a play better, it does not mean I’m looking to cut our most important player. That’s absurd. On the contrary, I want to push her to maximize her considerable potential and make us the best team we can be.

We talk all the time about setting high expectations — enforced by punishment or hard coaching — for kids and teachers and the people on the ground doing the work. I believe those expectations should apply equally — and more — to our leaders in the school district and society, myself included.

Of course, running a school district isn’t a sport. It’s an incredibly important public trust and responsibility. Life and death and the future of children can be decided by decisions we make and leadership we show.

Throughout my public life, I have found public coaching effective in helping strengthen public leadership and maintain high standards. So expect me to continue. Because it works. Because I owe it to the public I serve. And because the challenges we face from a hostile state government and fraudulent state model are considerable. Here in Polk, with our tortured, two-tier choice model, our traditional zoned schools and their oversight must function at the top of our game, all the time, to survive. We have little margin for error.

As I will detail in part 2 of this, there are real, difficult challenges in store for us in the coming year as we fight for the existence of a vibrant community school system, as personified by the community school we’ve just opened with community partners at Crystal Lake Elementary in Lakeland. More on that in part 2. But understand this, Crystal Lake Elementary will always be one of the schools on the Corcoran Kill List because of the neighborhood and kids it serves.

Today, however, I think Mrs. Byrd is doing an increasingly admirable job in helping us swim against the Tallahassee current. I think a lot of this progress has emerged from the productive, creative tension between Mrs. Byrd and a reinvigorated post-2016 School Board, which has brought new energy, new ideas, and new commitment. Imagine what can happen when we move past creative tension to creative collaboration.

I very much look forward to that.