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State of Education Forum in Flagler: Anxiety and Advocacy as District Braces for Shock

| March 10, 2011

Better attended than many classes: Superintendent Janet Valentine is to the left as she outlines the district's achievements and challenges Thursday evening. (FlaglerLive)

The state of education in Flagler County may be strong. It’s not going to stay that way if the state continues on its course of refusing to invest more responsibly in public education while balancing the state’s books on the back of local school districts. But parents can make their voices heard if lawmakers are to be swayed by the reasonable advocacy of those who see the effects of good-and not so good—policy decisions in schools.

That’s the message of “a very angry momma bear,” as Colleen Wood was described in her introduction before a State of Education forum by the Flagler County school district at the district’s board chambers Thursday evening.

“Why I’m angry is because I’m seeing people making decisions for our schools that are changing our schools, and it’s my babies,” Wood said. She started to advocate in Duvall County. She then spread to St. Johns. She now leads 50th No More, a statewide bi-partisan advocacy organization “designed to fight back against budget cuts to our great public schools.”

The forum had a two-fold purpose. Superintendent Janet Valentine started it with a sum-up of where the district stands academically and financially, and where it may be headed should funding decrease. Wood followed, after an introduction by Colleen Conklin—the school board member—who called herself all for reform. But “you can’t call it reform if it doesn’t work.”  Wood reminded the assembly that the Florida Constitution calls education “a fundamental value” and “a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provisions” for a safe, secure, high-quality and free system of public education.

And she contrasted that constitutional mandate with realities that don’t match up, from legal requirements lawmakers impose on school districts without paying for them to testing standards and such things as the “adequate yearly progress” standard that often defies logic. Blaming professional educators, Wood said, is no solution. Sending “nasty-grams” to legislators won’t do, either. The way to make a difference, she said, is to be aware of what’s being cut, to be conversant with consequences of state laws (or proposed laws), and to advocate on behalf of what matters locally.

“Get involved, ask these questions and don’t let anybody including me off the hook,” Wood said.

Meetings in the school board’s chambers at the Government Services Building take place before mostly empty seats, except at the beginning of meetings, when spotlights featuring the district’s prized students and programs draw an audience. That audience files out when the board gets down to its own fine print, leaving just administrators and other staffers scattered around the room. Tonight, at least two out of three seat was filled. There were parents in couples or alone. There were grandparents, too, this being Flagler County, a district where a disproportionate number of children live with grandparents or in otherwise non-traditional households. There were numerous parents with their young children. There were four of the five school board members and a former school board member (Evie Shellenberger, who chaired the board until November). There were numerous teachers, principals and other administrators.

Mostly, there was concern: concern that what has enabled the district to make itself stand apart from most with its lower drop-out rate, its higher graduation rate, its slightly stronger standardized test results, its blue-chip programs such as the Advanced Placement program, which yielded 370 college credits last year, and the International Baccalaureate diploma program at Flagler Palm Coast High School—one of just 70 such programs in the state (there are 448 high schools in the state).

During the question-and-answer period, someone asked: Will gifted programs, IB and AP offerings continue without cuts? “We haven’t even talked about cutting IB, gifted and AP this year,” Valentine said. “Certainly we’ll have to look at the costs of those and look at how we can make them more efficient.”

There are serious problems, too. Some 3,891 of the district’s students, or 30 percent, are reading below grade level.  They’re not going to improve with fewer tutoring sessions, a shorter school day and a more harried teaching staff. There are 250 homeless children in the district. That’s not a small number. It’s almost 2 percent of the student body. “I’m telling you, it was probably four or five years ago, we didn’t have any homeless children in this county,” Valentine said. And over the past four years, the proportion of poorer children—children who qualify for free or reduced lunch at school—has grown from 42 percent to 59 percent.

Over the last three years, the district’s staffing has fallen from 1,900 to 1,740, even as enrollment has risen by 400 students. Services have been stretched. Summer school has been all but eliminated, 75 percent of afterschool clubs and activities have been eliminated, most transportation for what activities remain has been eliminated, tutoring programs have been cut. And more cuts are ahead as the district plans to reduce the school day in middle and high schools by about 48 minutes.

Questions focused particularly on the survivability of the district’s IB program and strings program, on the future of the district’s alternative program at Pathways (“at this point we’re not looking at closing that but we are looking at reducing the size,” Valentine said), that the future of electives, including high school band, will be (that’s in question: many electives may be cut if the district reduces the school day), what the district will do for its students who are not college bound. “We’re going to continue to have options,” Valentine said. “They’re just going to be reduced. At this point that’s all that we can do.”

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10 Responses for “State of Education Forum in Flagler: Anxiety and Advocacy as District Braces for Shock”

  1. lawabidingcitizen says:

    Kick out the unions and take back our schools mama.

  2. Alex says:

    Tele-teaching may be the answer. It is used in higher education.

    No classroom size issue, no seniority issue, no transportation issue etc.

  3. JR says:

    As a future teacher, the state of education is dire. But, pouring more … and more … and more … money into the system got us the system we have now. Disregarding the international rankings (many other countries — think China — don’t submit all students to international testing — if your only test the best, your averages will be higher), what will make our system better is engaging parents — and grandparents, and all of the other people caring for children — in the education itself. Educators are frustrated because the finger is always pointed at them, they don’t decide what a child does outside of school, but they are still held accountable for children’s failures — how about the student themselves, or the parents. A lot of research has gone into the demographics of student success, and, more than race, or sex, or geographic location, or even economic status, the education of a student’s parents is the greatest indicator of that student’s success. What parents with greater education have over lesser educated parents is involvement. That is what will change education, not some legislator’s money, but parents getting involved, not to demand more money, but to be involved with their children

  4. PC MAN says:

    The goal of the teabagging republican party is to so underfund schools they will produce nothing but idiots, thus assuring itself an endless supply of constituents.

  5. Liana G says:

    JR I am going to disagree with you on the part concerning parental involvement being the key simply becasue telling students that their parents need to step up inorder for them to succeed will lead to reduce effort and lower motivation on the students part when the parents do not step up. That’s a recipe for failure!

    We tout other countries with their bright students being tied to parental involvement but research and my very own Asian connection dismisses this. Parents are not involved in their child’s education in these and many other success countries.

    I recently read an op-ed piece/research, compliments of our Education institution, which stated that 75% of students learning take place at home. My response was BS!

    But if they insist, then by all means give me the $11,000 per child/per year that it cost the state to educate a child, and I will be more than happy to suppliment the other 25% of learning plus more. With 3 kids in school that’s $33,000 per year and believe me with this much money we can and will certainly integrate tons of extra curricular activities, including cultural and diverse experiences, heck we can even take a few trips out the country to get real hands on exposure.

    We need to stop pushing the responsibility on parents and start teaching kids to take responsibility for their own learning outcomes because if that foundation/expectation is not in place at home, students will feel that they cannot succeed because that requirement is not there to help them succeed. This is the Pygmallion Effect.

    Parents doing the homework, parents doing the school projects, parents fighting their kids battle all lead up to a ‘Prozac Nation’ of individuals. It is not the poor who can afford expensive recretational drugs. So who is using it?

    Schools need to educate, and parents need to spend time bonding and doing fun stuff with their kids and whatever learning comes out of this so be it, but this bonding and fun stuff should not involve mountains of homework!

  6. Monica Campana says:

    Parents with education also read to their children. The verbal deficit for low income children entering school is very real. Children who do not learn to read proficiently by the end of third grade are unlikely ever to read at grade level. Since 2007, federal funding for early literacy has declined from more than $1 billion to $250 million. Florida is 50th in per capita spending for its schools and dropping. We have cut to the bone and are now approaching the marrow.
    In 2009, students who were eligible for free/reduced-price school lunch, an indicator of low income, had an average reading score that was 19 points lower than that of students who were not eligible for free/reduced-price school lunch. This performance gap was narrower than that in 1998 (29 points). Florida schools perform miracles even with dropping funding. Stop blaming us and work with us for OUR kids and Florida’s future!

  7. Jim Guines says:

    Frankly, as a longtime educator I have never seen it so hopeless and uncertain. Even the years of horror when we were in the mist of school desegregation, I could see the light on the other end. I am convinced that this is truly the end of public education as we know it. It is going to require drastic action on the part of all of us involved in education and all of the people who need the educational system to provide a future for becoming a productive citizen. We have to fight like never before.

  8. Van says:

    PC Man makes one of the best, most accurate quips I’ve ever seen. Perfect. The Repugs are indeed in the process of taking down education in this country, hollowing it out even more than it already is, and insuring that we have a nation of literal illiterates and innumerates, total know-nothings, who will swell the ranks of their Sarah Palin-Rand Paul tea parties, because they won’t know anything but how to exhibit the most overblown emotions when the country falls apart before their ignorant eyes. All the falling apart can easily be blamed on “liberals”, Obama, Democrats, anyone who can read and express coherent thought on any subject.

    It’s happening big time in Wisconsin, with Scott Walker as self-appointed fuhrer, absolute monarch in what had previously been perhaps the most progressive state in the union. He couldn’t possibly care any less what the people here think of him or his draconian slash-and-burn policies. He has the Koch brothers in his corner, and the support of multimillionaires and billionaires everywhere. They bought his office, he’s their bitch, and he’s loving the attention. Thinks he’s the second coming of Reagan, his hero, and in line for president. He’s an idiot, but when have they not had immense power? The more Michael Moore and other progressives bash him, the stronger he feels. (This reminds me, curiously, of Obama, who also has never given a damn what progressives think of his constant capitulation to the right.) Walker wants to enslave Wisconsin to corporate ownership, and he’s getting away with it. Rick Scott is delivering a similar bitch-slapping to Florida.

    Jim Guines has it exactly right, too. He generally does. Twenty years ago I nearly decided to move from substituting in Minneapolis to teaching full-time. Classroom experience and enough exposure, even that long ago, to administration chaos and what seemed a commitment to mediocrity and dullness, convinced me it would be a bad decision. I don’t regret it. But I deeply respect all teachers in this madhouse of a system; how they can bear up under it all, I can’t guess.

    Hang in there, teachers. And if you get out, no one will be blaming you. The tragedy, of course, is that young people are the victims of these fascist governors. To satisfy their sick addiction to greed, they’re willing to get our educational level down to about what the Central African Republic now enjoys. All Republicans and tea partiers should be in prison.

  9. JR says:

    Liana G,
    I’m sorry you misunderstood me. You are right — parents doing the homework, parents doing the projects, parents fighting the battles — will solve nothing. What I meant was parents taking responsibility for their children’s education, like Monica said, the verbal deficit is huge, and not to be underestimated. Parents showing their children that they will push them — the child — to do the best they can, be the best they can, is what will change things.

    However, there is a fine line, NBC ran a story on parents pushing students in high school, and younger, have perfect grades. That also solves nothing, it doesn’t motivate me to be told I have to bring home a perfect report card — with all the required classes, and standardized tests, it just scares me — but, parents can encourage their children and push them … and push them … push them to be their very best.

    That is what will change things, your right, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, it will take breaking the loop. A generation of parents who will not do their children’s homework for them, but will work at home with their children.

  10. Elana Lee says:

    JR: For the most part, I agree with your comment about the greatest predictor of a child’s success in academics being their parents education level. However, from a purely scientific perspective, children from well-educated parents may simply have a genetic advantage over children born to less intelligent parents. Ironically individuals with advanced college degrees tend to have fewer children.

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