Make a difference for Polk County kids on August 30th

To read the opening of this Special Education feature, pick up a copy of  our July 2016 issue. 

It’s 2016, and it’s election year! This year, though, our votes don’t count for president alone. You can also make a difference with your vote in your local elections, particularly the school board election. This election cycle, the ballot includes three Polk County School Board seats: District 1, District 3, and District 4. Candidates must reside in their representative area but are elected countywide and serve all of the students, families, and stakeholders in the Polk County School District. For this reason, we at The Lakelander thought it would be important to include all the candidates, not only those residing in District 1, which covers Lakeland. The following candidates have qualified for the August 30th primary election. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, the top two vote-getters will advance to the November 8th general election.

District 1

Hunt Berryman

Ed Shoemaker

Billy Townsend

District 3

Lori Cunningham

Ronnie Clark

Tim James

Kevin Kitto

District 4

Sara Beth Reynolds

Rebekah Ricks

Ed Smith

Becky Troutman

We reached out to all the candidates, seeking their responses to some of the more pressing voter concerns. Kevin Kitto and Ed Smith did not reply before the deadline.

The Lakelander: How do you plan to address the needs of low-performing students? What about high-performing students?

District 1

Berryman: Although this falls under the purview of the superintendent, I feel that we should dedicate more assets to our lower performing schools, including offering differentiated pay to teachers and administrators who work in these schools. As far as high performing students, I think we need to expand dual enrollment opportunities, offer internships with local employers, and start a mastery program where high-achieving students can accelerate their learning opportunities.

Shoemaker: Teacher morale and cutting edge programs. First of all, we need to take the handcuffs off of our teachers and allow them the opportunity to spend the time with low-performing students instead of the rigid expectations of state mandates. We need to change the mentality that our students are not merely a number or statistic, we need to focus on the whole development of the child. In addition, I have been in contact with a member of the school board staff and community stakeholders to explore implementing wraparound services to at-risk students and their families to decrease the dropout rate, disruptive behaviors in the classrooms, and to reduce the number of certificate of non-completions in the district (527 in 2014-15). In turn, this would also have an indirect positive impact on other students. High-performing students should be challenged and not subjected to mediocrity, and provided the opportunity to thrive in classrooms and not be held back due to the testing and limitations of common core.

Townsend: All students need to be treated like human beings with unique needs and learning styles. Enrichment programs for high-performing students at traditional schools will be a priority for me. We have a number of specially branded magnet, charter, and special schools that cater to high performers. We need to extend that sense of service to academically accelerated kids at the traditional schools. For instance, I would like to see “math circles” aligned to advanced math disciplines — like the “Russian School” of math — made available specifically to traditional schools students who excel in math. In addressing low-performing students, I would like to see us focus on the development of school environments that encourage perseverance and resilience. Authors and researchers like Paul Tough in “Helping Children Succeed” are revealing the crucial role that these concepts play in childhood development. We have to create an experience in which lower-performing kids can feel belonging and support from their learning community. This is antithetical to much of the prevailing education policy in Florida. A prime example of this is the retention of third graders who struggle on reading tests. Virtually all studies show that removing a child from their natural age cohort has damaging long-term effects on academic performance and life. We should begin to challenge retention requirements. Rather than thinking in terms of a child passing or failing a grade, we need to think in terms of which children in which age groups need extra academic help.

District 3

Cunningham: The district has added additional supplemental reading, math, and science instructional resources, like Success Maker, Achieve 3000, Stride Academy and Pcell. Additionally, the district has summer credit recovery and learning programs, namely Power Up Polk and the Accelerating Maximum Potential (AMP) Academies. For our high-performing high school students, the school district offers two International Baccalaureate (IB) Programs, the Cambridge AICE Program, Advanced Placement, and Honors courses. At the elementary and middle school level, our school system provides gifted programs as well as Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM) programs throughout the county.

Clark: I plan to address the needs of low-performing students by empowering the local experts (teachers and principals) to develop a continuous plan to address mastering of basic skills, which is often the cause of low performance, and as a board member commit to provide the resources to support such a plan. [For high performing students,] give the teachers the flexibility to use their creativity to challenge high-performing students and provide the resources that are need in this effort.

James: I’m an advocate for project base learning and the incorporation of alternative methods for low-performing students. I have used this since 2004 with a high success rate. We have to include additional types of high-performance classes for students to grow. We have taken some important classes away from both groups. Low-performing students need a path and a door to understand the usage of a quality education (communication of its usage and how). High-performing students need to be challenged even more within the desired area of their choice. One of the greatest concepts which I provide is having students from different levels communicate to each other. Both levels of performing students can learn from each other. Education is a method of interpretation.

District 4

Reynolds: I firmly believe that Polk County is home to the greatest teachers out there. They are highly trained in their field: teaching. They truly understand student needs and want to see each of their students succeed. At every school you will find teachers who arrive early, leave late, and use their “planning time” to assist students who are struggling. We have to allow our teachers the time to teach during the day, the time to go over the section that a few students didn’t seem to understand. And, when teachers make recommendations to test a student for gifted or for a student to receive extra help in a subject, we should be listening and taking a timely action on those requests.

Ricks: One way to help low-performing students is to focus on the skills they need to succeed. Instead of testing to find the low areas and underdeveloped skills, we should have assessments to focus on student strengths and progress. One size does not fit all when it comes to education. We are all different and learn at different paces. Our district needs to detail how they will give teachers the flexibility to adjust to the needs of parents and students. This starts with leadership that must establish attainable goals. Secondly, our goal as teachers should be “every student, every day.” We need to plant seeds of pride, confidence, belonging, and self-reliance in our students and, more importantly, in our teachers’ hearts. There needs to be a personal one-on- one adult connection with each of our students. What at-risk students want more than anything is a meaningful, caring relationship with an adult. Every student, every day, should know they are important. This is increasingly hard with large class sizes, especially in high school. We want our students to have the attitude that they do not want to disappoint their teacher. We need to provide extended learning time in the form of homework clubs or tutoring. If a student is behind, they will never catch up without extra, quality instruction. Basic skills are incredibly important and paramount to students’ success. Our schools need to stop teaching reading and start teaching students how to read. There is a big difference. Schools should “name and claim” those students that need help, and not let them “fall through the cracks” when they go to another grade or school. Getting our parents and communities involved is another way we can help low-performing students. Most parents want their children to succeed, but they do not know how to do it. If we continue to use Common Core math in the elementary schools, we must educate our parents on the thought process of Common Core and how the parents can reinforce the concepts learned at home. High school students, especially at-risk students, need to be placed in academies with career-oriented goals so they have a purpose for continuing their education. One of my biggest pet peeves is curriculum in our schools. In order to graduate, you are required to pass EOCs (end of course exams). Students are not given text books to take home and are expected to pass these tests with no concrete form of reference.

Troutman: In order to better serve both low-performing and high-performing students, we must strive for more individualized attention in the classroom. For ALL of our students, we need to ensure positive growth and learning outcomes. This can be accomplished through accurate diagnostic assessment and by creating learning experiences where standards are met or exceeded by EVERY student. In addition, we must focus on the student’s educational experience and treat them like a person rather than a statistic. For low-performing students, we need to develop a system that identifies, with consistency across all Polk County schools, the bottom 25 percent of students. Currently, we are facing a great difficulty identifying our low-performing children. We need to identify these students and provide diagnostic information so that teachers can work to build specific solutions. We must expand our diagnostics and resources for interventions for subjects other than reading. I have personally seen teachers identify children in need of math interventions only to be told by leaders, “We only address reading.” We owe our children resources to be successful in all areas, not only reading. As for our high-performing students, we need to make sure they are challenged in a meaningful way and given opportunities to exceed above and beyond standards and benchmarks. This cannot simply mean more work for these students; instead, we must foster learning that encourages higher levels of thinking and performance in varied areas of talents and giftedness.

The Lakelander: What is your opinion of the current testing structure in place in Polk County public schools?

District 1

Berryman: I agree that there is too much testing at certain grade levels. I think we should establish a testing task force, similar to what St. Johns County did, that includes all stakeholders to evaluate the amount of testing that is state and district required, or sometimes required by individual schools.

Shoemaker: In my professional opinion, the initial purpose of testing has been abused by politicians in Tallahassee. More emphasis needs to be placed on allowing teachers to teach and be creative in the classroom. My belief is that by doing this, progress will occur. We need someone on the school board that will push back against Tallahassee and advocate for our number-one asset in the classroom, the teacher, instead of testing.

Townsend: It’s a disaster. Overly complex, with technology that often doesn’t work and very little district-level support or accountability for helping the schools execute. We need a complete overhaul, which builds in community and teacher involvement. The district has not been very helpful in reforming testing. That must change. I hope to address this with a community and district effort similar to that undertaken in St. Johns County, in which educators and the community came together to align on a testing/assessment structure. In addition, one district executive must have personal and professional responsibility for how Polk experiences testing. If you have a question or concern about testing, it’s not clear to whom you can appeal for information.

District 3

Cunningham: The current testing structure is largely mandated by the federal government and state legislature to assess student achievement. For those students scoring a level; 2 on the Florida Standards Assessments (FSA), the district is mandated to test student proficiencies routinely to monitor progress. For the students scoring a level 3, 4, or 5 on the FSA, the testing schedule needs to be drastically modified. To that end, in the upcoming school year, the school district will be reducing testing to a mid-term and a final exam, each counting toward a ½ credit and then averaging the two semesters for a final grade.

Clark: The Florida School Board Association, Florida School Superintendents, and Florida Teachers Association all agree students are being over tested. The Polk County School System has added mandatory standardized tests to already over-tested students. In my opinion, as a trained certified behavior analyst, the Polk testing structure is insanity. This school district paid $340,000 for a test they couldn’t use.

James: We can NOT add additional testing for statistics or historical performance. This should have been done. Our student are being over tested and educators are not being allowed to educate. During my time as a principal and Director of Education for Polk County School programs, we provided testing for students twice a year and used the last part of the year to evaluate the result. This is how Donald E. Woods and Bill Duncan Alternative Schools moved past some of the high schools and middle schools in the district on the 2009 FCAT. I would do away with the extra testing and only include the state-mandated testing. Students need to learn and not be robots.

District 4

Reynolds: We spend entirely too much time on standardized testing. Tests and quizzes were designed to monitor progress. A student takes a pre-test to see what they already know and a post-test to monitor growth. This process helps teachers ensure that students are grasping new concepts or find areas that may still require additional help or practice to achieve mastery. The superfluous standardized tests do not help teachers or students. These tests have become a tool used in grading teachers or schools, rather than determining how we can further help students succeed.

Ricks: A test by definition is “a way of discovering, by questions or practical activities, what someone knows, or what someone or something can do.” That is exactly what testing should be in our schools — a tool for teachers to use to help our students learn.

Standardized tests have no benefit or value to the parents, teachers, and the students required to take them. According to a recent study, a typical student takes 112 mandated standardized tests between pre-kindergarten and 12th grade. Classrooms have become focused on test prep, not teaching students. It is an abuse of teachers’ and students’ time.

Troutman: Simply put, our students are over tested. Testing is critical to measure student growth and ensure standards are met; however, the frequency of testing and the emphasis placed on testing is crippling our students and our educators. Testing should be meaningful and reflective of a child’s learning, but it should also be limited in scope. We have to clearly identify what testing is required and what is not. If the testing is not required and it is not meaningful to students and teachers, it needs to be eliminated. Teachers should be treated as educational professionals, using their knowledge and skills to teach their students without having to constantly worry about covering arbitrary test material. We must work to ensure that assessments are aligned with standards; we should not be assessing what we are not teaching. Assessment should be done with the purpose to produce information about a student’s growth. We should use that information to improve teaching, not punish students or teachers. We must work to identify varied methods for children to demonstrate mastery. One test, one day (or several tests over several days) is not the only way to demonstrate mastery. In addition, all stakeholders can strive to challenge the status quo mindset about testing. Assessment can be meaningful and can be an opportunity for students to show others what they have learned; in this way we can work to lessen the anxiety often created when we approach assessments with a fixed mindset of high-stakes performance only.

The Lakelander: How do you see public-private partnerships helping our school district?

District 1

Berryman: I think we need to share our needs with the private sector and invite them to assist us with projects such as a public relations campaign, enhancing district technology, and raising funds for certain capital projects. I also hope that our business partners will continue to support our academies and offer internships for our students.

Shoemaker: I believe in community collaboration and partnerships between the Polk County School and businesses, organizations, and the nonprofit community. As a member of the Project One Initiative Advisory Council in Dade City, I envision great opportunities todevelop a One Stop Community School Concept within Polk County School District which is designed to bring businesses, organizations, and nonprofits inthe school to work in collaboration as a team to meet the needs of each student and their families. Other ideas are to build relationships with community stakeholders to sponsor schools by proving reading mentoring and vocational programs.

Townsend: Transparent programs that bring private resources to bear in serving public education can be very valuable. I am recommending that we engage local economic development organizations to fund an educational technology experience officer who will guide strategic technology decisions. But we also need to be careful. There is a lot of public money at stake in education and many people looking to get their hands on it. A board member has a powerful obligation to ask tough questions. Our current board members rarely ask difficult questions.

District 3

Cunningham: Public-private partnerships are essential to the well-being of Polk County Schools. We are fortunate to have partnered with many businesses across the county to establish almost 100 Career Academies in our schools. One of the most notable partnerships is the Central Florida Aerospace Academy located at Sun ‘n Fun. Additionally, the Polk Education Foundation (PEF) provides an opportunity for our business partners to award scholarships to deserving students pursuing a post- secondary education. Moreover, the Take Stock in Children and Teacher to Teacher programs support both students and teachers throughout the county. Thus, these public-private partnerships are a vital part of our school system to help provide opportunities for student success.

Clark: In collaboration with underperforming schools in high-property areas, the public- private partnership can provide enrichment programs, mentoring, and consulting services in partnership with the Polk School District. James: As a developer of charters and private schools, a past teacher, principal, and superintendent, I agree with the existence [of public-private partnerships]. We have to fill every area of this gap within education. Charters and private schools can provide different learning models to help students having difficulty. The problem that I have is that we can NOT allow outside companies from different states to come into the county to do the job for us. These outside companies take our tax dollars, student funding, bring in their own teachers, throw our kids out of school, and make million-dollar profits. We have what it takes to do it ourselves and ensure that our teachers are employed, students graduate, and funding stays within Polk County.

District 4

Reynolds: We often hear that, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Polk County is blessed with an incredible business community, eager to help. We should be embracing that. This holds especially true with the increasing academies throughout our county — partnerships within the community are imperative for their success. We want to provide our students with resources to best help them succeed in the future. Ricks: I do think that public-private partnerships can help our district. What we do need to make sure of is that the contracts the county makes are bid on through an open, transparent process and are not just part of the “who-you- know” network. Troutman: Public-private partnerships bring ownership back to the community. Private businesses bring many strengths to the public school system. Business owners and community leaders can help to inform policy decisions to produce a better workforce. Volunteers and mentors can greatly improve the overall educational experience for students. The private sector can help by providing capital and practical experiences to help drive down costs. Public-private partnerships help make more efficient uses of our tax dollars. These relationships provide better returns of investment of our taxes.

The Lakelander: Charter schools have been a hot topic as of late. What role do/should charter schools play in Polk County’s educational outcomes?

District 1

Berryman: I think that charter schools, when done for the right reason and by the right people, can fill a need for our community, such as Our Children’s Academy in Lake Wales. They do offer students additional choice opportunities and contribute to a portfolio of schools for our county.

Shoemaker: Charter schools serve their purpose to allow those students and parents as an alternative. However, I am a product of public education, my kids attended public schools, and as a taxpayer those taxpayer funds should be directed towards public education. I believe we need to put more effort into exploring and implementation of services to make a positive impact on students’ progress and to move those students from poverty to the middle class and higher in our public non-charter schools.

Townsend: Charter schools that commit to retaining rather than dumping their students and that offer alternative services or styles of instruction can be very valuable. In fact, “charter” as a word refers to too many different types of schools to allow for blanket discussion. Ultimately, the Polk School district has become divided into charter/choice/magnet schools for 35 percent of kids and traditional zoned schools for everybody else. Our goal needs to be to work together to provide quality and care and respect in every classroom of every school. Charters are not going away. They can learn from the commitment of the best traditional schools to teach all children. And traditional schools can learn from innovations found in the charter schools and systems. I would like to end the special school versus traditional school war, and focus on the well-being of kids within all of the schools.

District 3

Cunningham: Parents should have choices when it comes to the education of their children. Charter schools present options just like the Magnet/Choice, Polk Career Academies, Fine Arts, IB, and Cambridge AICE programs. Each of these options offers unique attractors and themes designed to provide a rigorous academic program that is focused around specific areas of student interest. Each family should have the opportunity to choose the program that best fits the needs of their child. I support charter schools as an option for students and parents, when they fill a need or complement the existing schools in our system.

Clark: Charter schools should be used for specialized educational opportunities that are not offered by the Polk schools. They should be held to the same standard as Polk’s other schools.

James: Same as [answer to previous question]

District 4

Reynolds: Charter schools and magnet schools alike were designed to diversify students and provide “school choice” options. In many instances, they have proven successful. We should be working together with all schools in our county to ensure that each of our students is being provided with the best educational experience.

Ricks: Charter schools are not going to go anywhere. Although charter schools do show a slight increase in reading and math scores, it has not been significant. But charter schools do show a drastically higher graduation rate. I am for school choice and parents having the right to choose what school their children go to, and educate their children how they choose. According to the new education bill signed in April (HB 7029), a student may attend any school in the state of Florida, provided the school has room, parents provide transportation, and the student is not under an expulsion or suspension order. This will open the door to a whole new world of options for parents and students. It will also put a lot of pressure on the next board to establish an efficient and easily accessible system for schools and parents to access.

Troutman: Charter schools have become somewhat of a polarizing issue in regard to educational policy, but there is truly no need for this division. Charter schools play a vital role in Polk County’s educational system. Charter schools can and do meet the needs of many students. Some students find success in charter schools after failing to have their needs met by traditional schools. This includes students with disabilities, students re-entering school after dropping out, high-performing students, and many more. Charter schools provide more choices for parents and students. In America, we like having choices, especially when it comes to something as important as our child’s education. Charter schools are a unique fit for many families. Many do not realize that charter schools operate under the jurisdiction of the Polk County School Board and are therefore held accountable for their performance. Charter schools are held to all of the same standards as traditional schools; they are held accountable for their financial performance and academic achievements. Charter school students are assessed by the same state-mandated instruments. If a charter school is not performing, their charter can be pulled. Charter schools foster beneficial competition within the district. I believe all traditional schools should be challenged to implement effective practices and/or policies proven effective in charter schools, and vice versa. We should be challenged to embrace their successes and even improve upon them rather than revolt and attempt to drive them out of the choices for our children and families.

The Lakelander: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

District 1

Berryman: I think that for Polk County to have systemic change in academic achievement we must put more emphasis on early learning. Research shows that exposing children to early learning opportunities, especially from birth to age two, enhances their chance for success in life.

Shoemaker: I believe my background, personal, and professional experience qualifies me as your next Polk County School Board District 1 member. I firmly believe that I am the expert and the person who will be able to facilitate positive change in the Polk County School District. In fact, that’s what I do for a living. I want to bring those skills to the school board. One could identify as many issues to resolve in the Polk County school system as there are people in the county. However, we need to start with relationships and trust; then identify the most pertinent issues to address that will benefit our students. We have to do this in a spirit of unity, not divisiveness. Last but not least, I consider myself a true leader welcoming all perspectives and fostering Polk County’s greatness. We need to move forward from an antiquated boss mentality that currently Townsend: ESE education and recess/play have both emerged as huge issues as I’ve spoken to people throughout the campaign. I support any effort to guarantee recess and play for students, particularly elementary students. ESE is a massive and complex issue. I would like to establish an aggressive ESE task force which will try to unify the district’s approach to serving these students.

District 3

Cunningham: While there is always room for improvement, our school district is trending in the right direction. We have made progress, with 43 schools having improved by one or more letter grades, thanks to our dedicated and talented teachers and support staff. Also, in the state-wide district rankings, Polk County moved up seven places. Additionally, Polk County public schools earned district-wide accreditation from AdvanceED, the largest accrediting body in the world. Moreover, the school district provides an incredible array of educational choices from the small learning communities in our Career Academies to arts-infused curriculum in our visual and performing arts schools. Finally, the district has had a clean audit for the past three years, and has maintained over a 5% fund balance at the end of each year, even though the state requires 3%. Thus, I am running for re-election because I want to continue moving our district forward until we reach our goal of being an A District. Clark: I am competent and qualified to lead on the Polk County School Board. I believe a good education is the basic foundation for success for the students of Polk County to compete in this ever-changing world. As a former classroom teacher and counselor, I am aware of how important it is to maintain a pulse on what is not only happening at the district office, but what is happening in every classroom throughout the county. I will serve with integrity. I will be accountable, transparent, and committed to making Polk County School System an A+ District.

James: We have to provide a voice for students and educators within Polk County. Our budget items have been for self-interest and not in the interest of the educational community. We need to have a person on this board that has been in every level of education and provided tools to educate every type of student. Our board should have the same requirements as our SACS committees in our schools. We can no longer wait another 12 years to do this. I have promised to contribute 30% of the school board salary of District 2 toward a scholarship fund that services only Polk County students. This will be for students that are less fortunate, low performing but [with an] increase in learning gains and been accepted to a university/college/vocational tech school.

District 4

Reynolds: As a proud product of Polk County Public Schools, I have spent a great deal of time in our classrooms. While I may be young, I am eager to learn, to listen to our community and serve as an advocate. I understand what students need, and I understand the challenges that teachers face. We have the opportunity to educate the future families, neighbors, and productive citizens of Polk County, many of whom will become doctors, accountants, business owners, and community leaders. They should be our priority, not just a line item on an agenda. Every decision we make and every conversation we have should only exist to better our educational system for our students.

Ricks: Education is my life. It is what I do, what I am passionate about. It is all I have ever wanted to do. Education and teaching is in my blood. My grandparents were teachers. My parents are teachers. I have six aunts and uncles that are teachers or principals. I have nine cousins that are teachers. Of that group, four are on school boards in Virginia, Texas, and California. You can imagine what our conversations are about at family gatherings. I get the unique opportunity to hear how education really works across the country. Educational issues are not foreign to me. This is something I eat, sleep, and breathe. I built my business on teaching, from scratch, based on my reputation as a classroom teacher. I know the business side of education. I know how much it costs to run a school and manage a business. I know curriculum. I have spent hours poring over text books. Finding out exactly what they say and why we should use them. Most people don’t know the difference in curriculum, whether they have spiral review or use building blocks. I have the opportunity to teach all levels and types of students in Polk County — home school, public, and private school students on a daily basis. Public school parents pay taxes, private school parents pay taxes, home school parents pay taxes. They all deserve to be represented and their interest voiced. Every family in Polk County deserves to have their taxpayer dollars used responsibly. One size does not fit all. Parents and students need to be aware of the choices they have in education. I feel that I represent all families. Each group can benefit the others, and we are better together.

Troutman: There is a great deal of work to be done to enhance the quality of our students’ education. I think it is important to emphasize that all of our goals can be met only through the instruction of qualified, highly effective instructors. We must maintain the very highest of standards when hiring teachers and staff members. They are the backbone of our school system and the most direct link to our students. We must improve communication on all fronts — between parents and educators, between the Board and teachers, between the Board and the State. Our communication system must be honest and transparent. Finally, we must be proactive rather than reactive in all of our communications. I challenge our school system to return PURPOSE to our children’s educational experience. With purpose, children can be engaged and may display fewer discipline problems. With purpose, families may embrace the behavioral expectations of the classroom and school campus. With purpose, embracing all abilities and strengths of our children, we can create environments that produce students ready for careers, community engagement, and further learning opportunities.