Ideas from another county about turning our schools around
BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG – The first meeting back from summer break for the Pinellas Suncoast Black Republican Club proved to be informative and gave members hope of turning around Pinellas County’s failing schools.
Angelina Boynton of the Marion County school board shared her insights and experiences with transforming failing schools into successful institutions.
“The problems that you have with F schools in your county are statewide,” said Boynton, who also sits on the board of the Florida School Board Association, which encompasses all the school boards in the state. “But what happens is, statewide, maybe we’re doing different things.”
Boynton pointed out that it is a “heated conversation” on what to do for these St. Pete schools, because there are so many different views on how to go about remedying the problem. She maintained that excellence in the boardroom is the first step to excellent achievement in schools.
“As board chair one of the things that I wanted to do was make sure that the board understood our responsibilities,” Boynton asserted.
Highlighting some of the key responsibilities, she underscored that the school board must ensure that the superintendent has clear and focused expectations, and that it creates a definitive district plan. Members operating in a respectful manner are also key, she said, as many meetings are televised and can be accessed by students and parents.
‘It’s the tone of your board that will dictate some of your achievement,” she said.
Citing a study exploring the correlation between board government and student achievement, Boynton noted that the schools functioned best when balanced government is practiced. It is “critical,” she added that a county has a strong board that can work together.
Along with good leadership, she explained the importance of having high expectations from the students, and the importance of ongoing student performance and a solid development plan.
“You have to have a plan,” Boynton stated, “If you don’t have a plan, everything is helter-skelter.”
Unnecessary shake-ups at times are to blame for schools underperforming, as Boynton explained that she believes in staying with a system that works.
Sometimes, she conceded, when a new official gets elected at a school that is already performing well, he or she may replace or “move around” principals and teachers, which may lead to conflicting visions for that school.
Boynton spoke about the Positive Alternative to School Suspension (PASS) system she helped implement in Marion County, which offers an alternative to out of school suspension.
“If you’re suspended to for 10 days, what’s going to be your grade for that nine weeks,” Boynton asked rhetorically. “An F. You’ve failed already.”
The PASS program keeps students in a classroom setting rather than off school grounds, and it is a voluntary option for the suspended child’s parents to provide transportation to the program. It is the child’s teacher’s responsibility to send the class work for the day, and the student may also receive behavioral modification tools.
“The first year, we had a percent participation from the parents,” Boynton said. “The second year we had a 90 percent participation.” She added that most of the students initially going through the PASS program did not commit other offenses that could get them suspended.
Above all, she stressed, it needs to be a program where children feel that the streets aren’t the answer. Shutting the children out of the school can make them feel that they are simply unwanted.
“The message that we give them when we suspend them is, ‘We don’t want you, we don’t want your type of behavior,’” Boynton averred.
Another bullet point that Boynton talked about in how to change F schools to A schools was changing the very dynamics of talking about failing schools, including starting conversations about the actual classroom achievement grade of students rather than the grade of the school based on the once per year school assessment, the Florida Standard Assessment test (FSA).
“Focus on what they’re doing in the classroom, not based on that test,” she insisted.
She cautioned that failure is a stigma, which can turn into a wound, and in some cases children can turn to drugs or violence to counter that pain of the wound.
“We have to engage our school leaders to actually change the focus from the test given by the state to the actual accomplishment in the classroom for each student,” she stated. “If you look at some of the grades they take home on their report cards, are they all getting Fs? Probably not. They’re probably getting As and Bs and Cs and and Ds and maybe some Fs. But if you feel you’re a failure, are you going to give it your best?”