Tuesday night, I attended one of many informational sessions Superintendent Kathryn LeRoy is hosting around the county as the school year begins. This event was open to the public and held at Elbert Elementary with approximately 50 people in attendance. If there are two points that I walked away with, it is that 1) there is a lot going on at Polk County Public Schools and 2) improving our schools is a very, very complicated issue. Frankly, my mind was exhausted when I left. I took four pages of notes, but as I know you won’t read that, I will do my best to summarize the session. (P.S. She still has a few sessions left so if you want the novel instead of the Reader’s Digest version, I highly recommend you attend. The sessions pack a lot of valuable information in within the hour.)
1. The session started with some great news for Winter Haven – Superintendent LeRoy confirmed with Doug Lockwood of the Public Education Partnership of Winter Haven that the school board will support their program of after-school extended learning at the PEP Tutoring Center. To what extent is unclear from the brief conversation (I fully admit to eavesdropping), but since that funding was not a certainty it was a relief to hear.
2. Superintendent LeRoy spent the first half-hour reviewing her first year at Polk County Schools and steps that have been put in place to move our district forward. The highlights:
- Centralizing the school system. This crossed several of her topics, but what I took away from this is that the school system is wanting to become more consistent with services and support offered to every school, curriculum offered, hours of teachable time (bell schedules), advancement, honors, AP and dual enrollment opportunities, safety etc. A centralized school system means that everyone is working towards a common goal, with metrics and measurable results. Moving together, if you will. She emphasized that this does not mean “centralized” in terms of Bartow and the school board being the center of the universe. In her words, “It’s about what happens in classrooms.” They have implemented a Comprehensive Aligned Instructional System (CAIS) which aligns all components of the system to ensure highly effective teaching and learning for every student, ensures common expectations and measurements and consistent and aligned district support.
- They have redefined and finalized a 5-Year Strategic plan which includes measurable outcomes within all departments of the district (not just schools and school grades, but support departments like Human Resources, admin, procurement etc.).
- They have also created more regional support that aims to address the unique needs of each of the regions or quadrants. There are four regions, each with their own Regional Assistant Superintendent and coaching staff, and they are made up of a similar mix of elementary, middle and high schools, income and other social demographics etc.. This coaching staff in the key core areas (math, science, reading and writing) is meant to support the teachers in an on-site, on-going basis versus bringing all the teachers together for an in-service for additional training for a day or week.
- Implemented a multi-tier support system for schools (turn-around) to address the schools with the greatest academic challenges.
- Hired a safety expert that aligns with law enforcement and provides clear expectations for schools in the safety and well-being of our students (outsourced from PCSO).
- Focus on literacy and early learning. This was a huge theme of the night. From rolling out a comprehensive literacy series at the elementary schools to a program called Read While You Roll which picked the 20 longest bus routes and put a reading library on board so that students can read for pleasure while they are on the bus. According to LeRoy the program has proven to be successful in New York for improved reading comprehension skills as well as decreasing disciplinary problems on the bus.
- This summer the school system rolled out a Summer Learning Program that serviced 4,500 students (and served over 122,000 meals – almost double from past summers). Without going through all of the stats, there were definite areas of improvement for students re-taking their End of Course exams.
- They established 4 parent resource centers (one in each region) to provide wrap around services for families in high need communities
- Another theme of the night was an emphasis on professional development for teachers and administrators to create top-tier talent for our system. They also addressed teacher and staff morale and have implemented an on-going Teacher Workload Committee, in collaboration with the Teacher’s Union, in an effort to reduce workload concerns for teachers and increase teacher morale.
- They have also completed long-range planning for finances and for capital improvements – however LeRoy does admit that they have somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million in deferred maintenance projects on the to-do list and state funding, as we have read in the media this year, is very hard to come by.
3. School Grades
- This was another area that definitely had my head spinning. I think what is important to note is that you cannot tell everything by a school grade. There are weighting system, safety nets, formulas etc. And it’s all about to change anyway. One thing I found surprising is that school starts this week and the district still does not know how they are being evaluated by the state for this year. But Superintendent LeRoy explained that it will be a more rigorous grading system from everything she has seen and heard.
- This year the breakdown of Polk County schools was:
15% – A12% – B26% – C39% – D8% – F
- She explained that when she started she was given a mandate to make our district an “A” district within 5 years. I will not even pretend to guess what goes into being an “A” district, but something tells me based on the grades above that we have a lot of work to do. She is confident that we are heading in the right direction, however.
- One thing to note about one school in Winter Haven: Of the 5 lowest performing schools in the district she specifically congratulated Garner Elementary in Winter Haven which improved from an “F” school to a “D” grade moving 351 points to 408. The gain of 57 points places the school only 27 points away from earning a “C” grade.
4. So what’s the bottom line. What is the school district focusing on over the next year (and years for that matter)?:
- Increase in reading proficiency across all grades with a focus on early literacy
- Provide multiple opportunities of acceleration and career academies for students
- Ensure efficient use of highly effective resources across all schools
- Significant increase in professional development for teachers and schools administrators
- Increase financial efficiency to increase funding for academic resources in the classroom
- Expand extended day (like the PEP Tutoring Program) and summer learning opportunities
Again, there was so much more discussed at this meeting, so I encourage you to attend one of the remaining sessions or get plugged into the Chamber Education Committee (starts back in October – contact Amanda@winterhavenchamber.com) or the Public Education Partnership of Winter Haven.