Hiring and retaining quality teachers and Addressing students’ social and emotional well-being are the top two areas Flagler County residents want their school district to focus most on, with safety third. Three-quarters of respondents are satisfied or extremely satisfied with their school district, with equally overwhelming agreement that the district is heading in the right direction, with quality teachers, transparency and safety.
But residents would also like to have fewer phone calls from the district, and yet again, less policing of how students dress.
Those are some of the results of a 20-question online survey the Flagler County school district conducted for six weeks, from Aug. 3 to Sept. 30, though the survey drew a surprisingly low number of respondents: 437 in all, with an average response rate of 406 per question. The survey was disseminated through the district’s website and Facebook pages. Flagler County and Palm Coast government posted it on their Next Door Facebook pages, and the chamber of commerce was asked to pass it on to its members.
The survey asked 20 questions (you can see them here), a few of them profiling respondents: only 14 percent work for the district–the district was emphasizing outreach to residents beyond schools–almost as few are Flagler schools alumnus. They were almost of all ages, with very few 34 or younger, and 60 percent have children in schools–91 percent of those in traditional public schools.
The questions were designed “to see if our message was getting out beyond our walls,” the district’s Jason Wheeler, who handles the system’s communications, told the school board last week as he presented the numbers.
Some of the questions asked for just one response, some for up to three, and some up to five answers. That was the case with the most substantive of the questions: what the district should focus on in the next five years. Fifty-seven percent want the hiring and retention of quality teachers, though judging from other responses in the survey, there’s no serious dissatisfaction with the quality of existing teachers. (In comparison, hiring and retaining quality administrator got just 18.8 percent support.)
Addressing students’ social and emotional well being was six points behind and safety almost seven points behind, with “ensuring a well-rounded educational experience for all students” getting 44 percent, and “preparing students to be socially responsible citizens” at 40.3 percent.
Complaints about spending, taxes and finances tend to draw attention in news stories or comment sections, but the attention may be overdone: just 10.9 percent of respondents listed “ensuring fiscal health” as a needed focus in the next five years. (In a separate question, 84 percent of those who had an opinion said agreed or strongly agreed that the district was fiscally responsible.)
Ensuring students for state testing came in next to last at 9.7 percent, with “providing relevant communication to stakeholders” coming in last, at 9.7 percent–a small irony, since the survey had a lot to do with ensuring that communications are provided relevantly and efficiently.
Items not listed, however, might have gotten higher responses, judging from the written comments the district received: there was no question about dress codes or bullying (though some of the items may have implied it). The survey, in other words, was designed around leading questions rather than more open-ended ones.
In a list of a dozen statements to which respondents were asked whether they agreed or not, the district comes up brightly, with overwhelmingly strong or positive agreement that the district is cooperative, facilities are well maintained, and schools are safe: 86 percent of those with an opinion agree or strongly agree that it is so (not counting the 53 respondents who had no opinion).
The two items that got the most negative responses were transparency and the school board: 99 respondents, or 28 percent of those with an opinion, disagreed or strongly disagreed that the district was transparent with its communications, and 105 respondents, or 34 percent, disagree that the board represents their needs and expectations. But that stands in something of a contradiction with the more positive responses, since the board is responsible for ensuring the district’s academic direction, its general safety, and so on, at least by way of the superintendent it hires.
A question asked about the “three most important sources for information about Flagler Schools.” Respondents listed the district’s website, its social media and electronic or online newspapers or blogs, in that order, with the district’s calendar of events by far the top item of interest and parent information next.
As for receiving information from the district, those seemingly incessant robocalls do not get high marks: email is most preferred, followed by texts, with regular mail dividing people between those who like it and those who don’t. Age may play a role in that regard, though the answers aren’t broken down that way.
“In communication, you try to get everybody. You’re not going to get everybody. But just to find out where the biggest holes are and try to plug up those as best you can,” Wheeler said. “When you talk about school communication it’s about communication from that parent’s individual school, not from this office. Communication from us, for me or whatever, that doesn’t count for most parents. They want to hear from their child’s teacher first, and then principal, administrators, second.”
School Board member Andy Dance, a fan of data, wants more participation in surveys, and more ways to track responses across demographics. “I think we need to set goals for how many respondents we get so we can get a more accurate cross-section,” he said.
The written responses in comment form, which fill four pages, were not presented to the board members last week. Four themes recur, if none overwhelmingly so: the dress code, school safety, testing and school-to-parents communications.
Tom Russell, who’s winning applause as a first-year principal at Flagler Palm Coast High School but not as a fashionista, has brought more draconian and time-consuming enforcement of the district’s dress policy than any of his predecessors, to the chagrin of faculty and students and now, parents: “A mass dress code check was conducted at FPC which resulted in nearly 100 students losing valuable instructional time for minor dress code infractions,” one respondent said, citing the date. “I understand that Mr. Russell is trying to set the tone for the school year, but pulling students from class to wait in the cafeteria to be written up or sitting in ‘I.C.E.’ all day instead of learning in a classroom is a far more of a distraction from the curriculum than a pair of ripped jeans. The dress code is important and should be enforced , but this kind of cattle call punishment system will result in poor attendance and reduced graduation rates. I think Mr. Russell should get his priorities straight, instead of trying to redeem himself at the cost of student academic success.” (“I.C.E.” is a reference to FPC’s poorly-named and somewhat inaccurate “In-Class Exclusion,” or more accurately, in-school suspension.)
Three other comments are critical of the district’s focus on dress. On the other hand: “need to enforce the uniform policy, and stop the liberal bias being taught.” The reference to “liberal bias” was not explained.
There were two Kantian concerns for a lack of focus on students as individuals, as opposed to a mass: “Flagler is great on paper but when it comes to the individual we are lacking. The school needs to stop worrying about their grade and start worrying about the students getting pushed through the system,” one said, echoing another: “each child should be treated as an individual.”
A respondent with a particular concern about exceptional student education said that while the district is concerned about “transparency,” many “secrets” prevail.
Regarding school safety, “When there are threats the public should be notified too,” one commenter said. “Not just the parents. Your citizens can also provide valuable info/intel.” And another asked: “Is there 100%protection from gun violence?”
One respondent took a different, if misinformed, approach on safety: “It is too scary to send my kids to schools where God isn’t welcome but teachers need a workshop to teach them how to deal with active shooters.” (The occasional claim that “God isn’t welcome” is a common misconception that often goes uncorrected: in fact, students and faculty are free to pray, openly or privately, even in groups, inside or outside school buildings, as long as faculty doesn’t lead any form of prayer where students are involved. State law explicitly protects personal expressions of faith and forbids interference with such expression as long as the expression itself isn;t directly interfering with, say, ongoing class instruction.)
The district’s high-profile flagship programs, the more than two dozen schools within schools that focus on trades, professions and career, and that were only lightly referred to in the survey, drew a sharp rebuke from one respondent: “It’s time to put schools decisions back in the hands of parents and remove it from the businesses who give the most to school board members. They DO NOT and SHOULD NOT have ANY say in what direction schools go. The classrooms to careers voc ed mantra needs to stop. It is a business ploy to keep many kids from being “well educated” and allow businesses to keep salaries low. Pity that schools are now pawns of the business world.”
And finally there was this: “I have 2 very nice trumpets I would like to sell ($150, $250) who might I contact? I’ve tried emailing the high school band director – no response.” The comment was made by Dawn Florkowski, who even left her phone number. So if you would like one or two very nice trumpets, you can see her phone number in the document below, near the bottom of the fourth and last page.
Additional written responses to the survey, uncensored: