Major changes are coming to Flagler County schools: Rezoning, reforming and rethinking the district’s physical and intellectual boundaries. By the time it’s done—or at least implemented—students, teachers and parents will have all felt the ground beneath their feet move a little, and in some cases a lot.
By 2014, it is becoming a certainty that elementary and middle schools will disappear. They’ll be replaced with universal K-8 schools. The Flagler County School Board believes the reconfiguration will result in more “personalized” education: The reconfigured schools would borrow a page from the charter school movement, with each school emphasizing a specialty (think arts, science, languages), rather than providing the same curriculum throughout. Each school would preserve a basic core of coursework, of course.
“The reason for that reconfiguration,” Superintendent Janet Valentine says, “is to provide more balanced schools, smaller learning communities within the schools, acceleration options, remediation options, a focus on areas of interest, school choice options with transportation, and then ultimately, that more personalized approach to education.”
The school district currently has 3,000 more seats than it has students. That’s the equivalent of two whole schools. The district’s traditional public schools have also been losing enrollment to the county’s charter schools, while the county’s overall student population has stagnated for five successive years. Moving to a K-8 system would make for a more efficient, less costly system, particularly with transportation. It would also—the district hopes—help blunt the growing appeal of charter schools by providing the same sort of specialization and choice to parents.
And it would dovetail with a $30 million, four-year grant the district is applying for as part of the federal school reform movement called Race to the Top. That’s another major change, should the district secure the grant.
Race to the Top is an Obama administration initiative that, through very competitive grants, pushes states to adopt higher education and graduation standards, college eligibility and entrance rates. It also encourages better teacher recruitment and retention, with particular emphasis on low-achieving schools. It does so with methods that have been interpreted as either innovative by its advocates or abrasive and alienating by its detractors, among them some teacher groups. Race to the Top requires far more rigorous evaluation and reward systems that could leave some teachers behind. But Flagler County’s teacher union has signed on.
Flagler’s $30 million grant is part of a multi-billion program that has most districts around the nation, and virtually every district in Florida, competing. But the acceptance rate is low, and nothing guarantees that Flagler, despite high confidence in the district, will land it.
“Flagler’s participation in Race to the Top will strengthen the long-standing district expectation that all teachers will provide rigorous, authentically engaging, standards-based instruction,” the district’s 77-page grant application reads, “that challenges students and results in students graduating from high school ready to be successful in college or post-secondary career education. It will cause the district to focus Professional Development so that a correlation can be drawn between what teachers learn and how they implement that knowledge to raise student achievement. Through its redesigned evaluation system, the district will identify and reward teachers who are consistently achieving student growth so that others may emulate their practices. “ See the full grant application here.
The school board has been recalibrating its thinking around Race to the Top since January 2010, when it secured a very small grant designed to help it adapt to the new system. It then applied for the much larger grant. The results will be announced in December. Between now and then, the district is exploring various consequences of anticipated changes, not all of them necessarily related either to the grant or to Race to the Top.
During a workshop last week, for example, board members examined potential rezoning maps for the two high schools and the two middle schools. Rezoning is a certainty whether the district lands the grant or not. The question is how far the rezoning will go to enable the K-8 system.
Flagler Palm Coast and Matanzas High School won’t change. But their populations and zoning boundaries will. FPC’s population of 2,400 is currently some 300 students over-capacity. That’s why you see those portables ringing parts of the school’s campus. Matanzas’s population of 1,600 is more than 300 students below capacity. The district wants to even out the two schools and balance their demographics: the proportion of black students at FPC (20 percent) is twice that at Matanzas (10 percent), though Asians and Hispanics are more fairly balanced between the two schools.
The most significant proposed change would carve out a swath of the western ends of the W and R Sections of Palm Coast, and send those students—who are currently attending Buddy Taylor Middle School and Flagler Palm Coast High School—to Indian Trails Middle School and Matanzas High School instead. That’s one proposal. A second proposal would limit the carving to the W Section.
Both proposals would even out the populations of the two high schools. But the first proposal would better achieve the racial balance the district is aiming for, and would likely prove more controversial for that reason: even after de-segregation, predominantly white schools’ communities have historically reacted bitterly (and often embarrassingly) to greater influx of black students. Those bigoted reactions are unlikely to spare such rezoning efforts, however well intentioned (and legally compelling) in a county known in Florida for having been the very last to desegregate its schools.
The district itself is not in a position to prevaricate over fairer treatment of black students, who are disciplined and expelled at much greater rates than white students, a disparity that resulted in the Flagler district being one of four at the receiving end of a federal complaint by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Nevertheless, Valentine cautioned, “we don’t want this to go any further with people starting to look at lines and all, because these are just really rough estimates at this point.”
During last week’s discussion, Valentine also de-coupled the rezoning plan from the district’s K-8 transformation, suggesting that the transformation hinged on securing the Race to the Top grant.
“I thought that during a board meeting, we discussed going K-8, and this board said, regardless of the grant, we’re going K-8,” School Board member Colleen Conklin said, surprised.
But the superintendent wanted to have a plan just in case the district did not go to K-8, “to give some relief” to existing schools. “If I’m being directed that we’re going to K-8 no matter what, then we can certainly go back to the drawing board and just do K-8,” Valentine said. “I apologize, but I thought we were looking at all options, because we’re going to have to look and find out financial impacts of all of these moves. So what I’m trying to do is lay out all the options for this board to look at and discuss.”
But valentine assured the board that students will not go through two rezoning no matter what. “No one at all is going to recommend that, no,” Valentine said. “I just want you to see all the options. We will consider all the financial costs. And we will do that before the decision is made in December by the feds as to whether we get the grant or not.”
In two weeks, the board will consider rezoning maps as they would look in a K-8 system.