The Four Frauds of School Grades, part 2: of Lake Wales and the brutal human consequences of fake “competition”

Please see part 1 of this series here. Florida’s punishment-based school-grade system is what breeds the fake competition that leads to anti-human stories like the one that follows. The four frauds are:

  1. Incomprehensible complexity, tied to gaming of test results, that takes a 38-page technical paper to explain.
  2. What’s actually calculated isn’t even a grade; it’s a score. And 62 gets you an “A.”
  3. It “grades” schools with self-selected, screened enrollments on the same scale as default, zoned schools.
  4. They do not respect parental choice. The penalties involved punish and stigmatize parents and teachers who choose neighborhood schools.

The incentives created by those frauds set the conditions for what’s described in this article.


The Shephard family moved to Lake Wales from Osceola County near the end of the 2017-2018 school year. I’m using fake names in telling their story because it’s unnecessary to identify them. They’ve suffered enough from the petty adult destructiveness of the Lake Wales Charter/Polk District community divide.

This “healthy competition” between districts somehow landed their 10-year-old daughter Rachel, who has autism, on a 6:15 am bus out of Lake Wales for the daily 18.8-mile, 30-to-40 minute ride to Floral Avenue Elementary in Bartow. That ride, overseen by a largely untrained bus attendant, left Rachel agitated when she arrived at school virtually every day.

By and large, until confronted, the Lake Wales Charter and Polk districts, as entities, reacted to this geographic and moral reality in the same way:  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Kafka on the Ridge

The Shephards’ son Thomas is gifted, as defined by testing. Rachel, 10, has a detailed Individualized Education Program (IEP) to address her autism. That is the plan crafted by families and educators for Exceptional Student Education (ESE) students.

The Shephards are extremely attentive, thorough, and measured parents in my experience. Prior to the move from Osceola, they had been in contact with officials, including an ESE official, with the regular Polk district. The Shephards informed this official of Rachel’s needs; but they did not get a specific recommendation for a Polk school that could accommodate her prior to moving. I don’t know why.

Rachel’s father did learn from the Polk district that Spook Hill Elementary in Lake Wales would be their district zoned school. But when he called to see if Spook Hill could accommodate the special needs of Rachel’s autism, he was told No. I’m not entirely sure why. I haven’t gotten a clear explanation. And I will be further exploring this. Unlike LWC, the Polk District did at least engage with the Shephards and eventually offered an option — albeit one 19 miles away from their new Lake Wales home.

In fairness to LWC, at no point did someone from the Polk District make reference to Lake Wales Charter elementary schools or Victory Ridge charter, which specializes in ESE, as options for the Shephards. That needs to change. Immediately.

But it wouldn’t have mattered.

The Victory Ridge wait list is very long. And when Mr. Shephard discovered the Lake Wales Charter schools on his own, he called charter Hillcrest Elementary, which is walking distance from where the Shephards now live. He was told Hillcrest couldn’t accommodate Rachel either.

The Shephards decided to apply to enroll their gifted son Thomas in Hillcrest because of how close it is to the family home. Mrs. Shephard applied in person at Hillcrest, without difficulty, with her son in tow. Then she asked again about accommodations for Rachel.

Mrs. Shephard told me the “registrar” at Hillcrest, who is really more of an executive assistant, whose name I know but won’t print, replied: “No we can’t accommodate ESE here.” That’s false. Hillcrest does have at least some services for ESE students.

Following that experience, with Spook Hill ruled out, Mrs. Shephard says she placed two calls to the Lake Wales Charter central office to ask about options at the other elementary schools. Neither call was ever returned.

That left district-run Floral Avenue, 19 miles away in Bartow, as the only option.

And it did not go well. Elements of Rachel’s IEP that had worked in Osceola County were somehow removed from her IEP in Polk, Mrs. Shephard said. And the long morning bus drive ride so damaged Rachel’s context for every day that Mrs. Shephard began driving Rachel herself every morning and allowing her to ride the bus home in the afternoon.

“I had no clue that Hillcrest had ESE classes”

Meanwhile, at his neighborhood school Hillcrest (which isn’t a neighborhood school because of charter law), Thomas Shephard was thriving. And apparently, through one of his teachers, Mrs. Shephard learned that Hillcrest could accommodate Rachel, despite what she had been told.

Mrs Shephard sent this email to Hillcrest dean of students at the end of the just completed school year, on May 29, 2019:

Hello Mrs. XXXXXXX,

First, as the year is ending I want to send you a special thank you for everything you did for [Thomas] and our family this year. I am so proud that [Thomas] is attending Hillcrest and proud to be a Hawk parent. Hillcrest is superb and more than I could have imagined for [Thomas]. He has thrived and has exceeded our expectations. Thank you so very much!
I also wanted to reach out to you in regards to his sister, [Rachel]. I had no clue that Hillcrest had ESE classes. Had I known this, I would have pursued her attending Hillcrest when I first enrolled [Thomas] back at the end of the 2018 school year. That being said, I wanted to touch base with you about her. She has been struggling at Floral Elementary. She is in an IND program but is Autistic (high functioning). The teachers and staff (although they have tried) have struggled with her because of her sensory disorder and other aspects of her autistic traits. I wanted to know if there would be any possibility of [Rachel] attending Hillcrest. At our last IEP meeting, we did discuss mainstreaming [Rachel] with appropriate support but that will not be determined until the end of the summer. There is already an IEP in place but the IND program has not been the appropriate setting her so we are strongly considering mainstreaming. I wanted to know if that would be a possibility at Hillcrest. Is there any chance of submitting her IEP to Hillcrest for review to see if she can attend next year? As a side note, she is on the waiting list for Victory Ridge (also a charter school) but I keep being told that there will only be room for her if someone moves. I know that siblings of children already attending a charter school get preferential enrollment but I am struggling with understanding how that works. Any guidance, help, advise you can give would be greatly appreciated. Please feel free to call me. My number is XXXXXXXXX.
Kind Regards,
[Mrs. Shephard]

This email was never acknowledged until I provided it, with Mrs. Shephard’s permission, to multiple Hillcrest and Lake Wales Charter officials on a long email string, in which this entire story first unspooled a few days ago.

If you’re keeping track at home for Hillcrest and LWC, that’s one “No” over the phone; one “No” in person; two unanswered calls to the LWC district office; and an extremely courteous and specific parent email that was ignored and/or just fell through the cracks.

Before Mrs. Shephard and I produced that email, Hillcrest Principal Jennifer Barrow had said this in her own email answering me about the Shephard family’s experience with Hillcrest.

Thank you for bringing this to my attention and I have included [the dean] on this email. She is my Dean of Students for discipline not my assistant principal. Even if the mom reached out she never filled out an application as stated before and per our enrollment policy. Once again, the mother never met with administration, the referral coordinator, or call the school (not the charter office) for follow-up. However, mom did follow up regarding the food program for the summer and as this was being worked out she never mentioned this as a concern. As stated before, she was not denied entry into the school and we will contact her first thing in the morning with [the registrar].

Moments thereafter, Mrs. Shephard gave me her May 29 email to the “dean of students” that Barrow referred to. I sent it everyone on the string. Here’s how that dean reacted.

Good evening everyone,
I just searched my inbox, and indeed, found a email from [Mrs. Shephard] that was sent on the 28th of May at 9:08pm.  I would like to offer my most sincere apology to everyone, especially her, for having missed the email until today.  Apparently, I missed it and have not been on my school email much over the summer.  It was never my intention to disregard [Mrs. Shephard].  I spoke with her several times throughout the year regarding the needs of the family and I wish she would have mentioned needing an application.  Though, I do not handle enrollment at Hillcrest (as stated, I am the Dean of Students and I handle discipline and student needs), I would have certainly forwarded the message to [the registrar] had I seen it.  I hope we can all recognize that this is not a reflection of Hillcrest Elementary or our willingness to welcome all students with varying disabilities and circumstances.

A happy ending?

The email thread I started about the Shephards included — from the start — outgoing LWC board chair Jimmy Nelson; LWC Superintendent Jesse Jackson; and LWC Attorney and founder Robin Gibson. Superintendent Jackson never said a word in response. He never acknowledged receiving any of it. Gibson added Barrow, who added the dean, and they did all the responding. (That’s odd because Jackson did engage in another thread — at about the same time — about another petty squabble related to whether Bok Academy North had finished construction work on time.)

At the same time, I was talking with district folks responsible for improving Rachel’s well-being at Floral Avenue. Those discussions were good. They had already been thinking about improvements to Floral’s approach before I inquired and were working pretty collaboratively, from what I can gather, with Mrs. Shephard.

But when the email thread I started led to Hillcrest offering admission to Rachel a few days ago, the Shephards understandably jumped at it. I would have jumped at it, too. Mrs. Shephard started to explain to me, almost apologetically, why she was choosing not to transport her child 19 miles a day. I stopped her. She owes no one any explanation. All of us, instead, owe her and her family a profound apology.

Had “never applied” for admission?

Robin Gibson is my cousin. His mother and my grandmother were sisters. He has been good and kind to me my entire life. I love him. He was at my daughter’s wedding. Do with that what you will. It pains me deeply to have these types of discussions in public with him. But that’s my problem and his, not anyone else’s. We both chose to be public figures serving public institutions on behalf of the public.

Robin Gibson is also who a handful of business people in Lakeland invited to discuss Lakeland schools “going charter” back around the time of the LeRoy debacle circa spring 2016.  I’m going to come back to that in part 3, when I examine the lessons Lake Wales offers to Lakeland.

Indeed, Lake Wales and Lakeland are already quite similar in their educational dynamic and structure; but Lakeland schools generally perform better on the scoreboard, and Lakeland is just bigger. So there are more opportunities to make atrocities like this less atrocious.

Gibson sent me this note shortly after Rachel Shephard was admitted to Hillcrest.

I just wanted to forward you the email received from the principal of Hillcrest to the effect that the ESE student you wrote about, XXXXXX, has been enrolled at the school.

The assistant principal was mortified that she had overlooked [Ms. Shephard’s] email, and took full responsibility. In Hillcrest’s defense, [Ms. Shephard] had never applied for [Rachel’s] admission – but that has now been rectified.

I believe your intervention helped straighten matters out, and we thank you.  These things can get emotional. We’d rather work to solve problems based on merit and logic.

Put aside the fact that these parents were nothing but composed in every dealing I’ve had with them. In general, feeling helpless to protect your child in the face of indifferent and unresponsive power makes people emotional. So why wouldn’t anyone be emotional? I would be.

And “never applied”? Really?

Remember, this family got: one “no” each over the phone from Hillcrest and Spook Hill; one “no” in-person from Hillcrest; two unanswered calls to the LWC district office; and silence from Hillcrest in response to an extremely detailed and courteous email to a Hillcrest leader.

If these relentlessly polite and prepared parents didn’t do enough to advocate for their child, what parent possibly could? If they can be blamed for not ignoring the words of school itself and not powering through the indifference of its systemic leadership,  then parents can be blamed for anything.

We must stop playing whack-a-mole with atrocity

In that next article, I’ll explain why the Lake Wales divide unique structure breeds statistical underperformance and atrocity, even if no one intends it. I’ll lay out some of my ideas for fixing the LWC/Polk District divide so no one has to “lose.” I have a million of them.

But I don’t have any idea for getting Jesse Jackson and Jackie Byrd to talk to each other about this as leaders, in good faith. I can’t will that good faith into existence. I wish I could.

Many of the ideas I have for Lake Wales could apply to tackling larger questions of busing and segregation by class, achievement level, ESE status, race… all of it.

And make no mistake, this atrocity repeats itself in many forms all over Polk County, including Lakeland, where “choice” and “special needs” and “achievement levels” collide with community divisions and schools with self-selected enrollments, where “No” is always an option.

As a board member, I am tired of playing whack-a-mole with atrocities. It’s big part of my job. It needs to be smaller. More to come.

Again, you can see part 1 below.

The four frauds of school grades, part 1: Comparing magnet and charter schools to each other — not zoned default schools

One comment

  1. Oh, my goodness. This makes me want to both scream and cry. The experience of this family is so prevalent in Polk County; I know, because I worked at two private and one public school for ESE students in the county. The only temporary solution I can see right now is ALLOCATE MORE SPACE, TEACHERS AND RESOURCES for public ESE schools. If private schools for this population had more oversight, I would endorse them also, but right now, they operate as their owners see fit. Please keep fighting for our kids, Billy.