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Monday, July 25, 2011

How my school got on the Intervene list

I am not allowed to say what school I work out but if you were to guess that it was one of the schools that made the intervene list I don’t think it would be against the rules for me to nod my head yes. If you didn’t know it, the intervene schools are considered the failing schools in Florida, the bottom of the bottom and Jacksonville has more intervene schools than anywhere else in the state, (7 out of 27). Here we have one k-8 school and then six high schools on the list; all of the schools by the way are North of Beaver Street and West of Casset.

My school hasn’t always been an intervene school, though for years I have been warning that it would be and this is how it happened.

Five years ago despite our huge special education population we were a C school of some note. We had a well renowned physics club, a model UN team that was one of the best in the state. A Drama program that put on several performances a year and an art department that was routinely represented at shows. We also had a veteran staff that knew what it was doing and dedicated to the school’s children. Fast forward and after a few years of fluctuating between a F and a D we are on the intervene list and we have none of the above.

It started when 300 students arrived from the first round of intervene schools. The statistics show that kids on opportunity scholarships do not improve when they get to their new school and the new schools often suffer but despite that the state continues to insist districts move these kids around. My school was no exception and within two years we went from a C to an F. I imagine the same thing will soon happen at Mandarin, the destination of our opportunity scholarship students.

Thus the downfall of our school began and the next step was the micromanagement and subsequent departure of our staff.

No longer were teachers allowed autonomy and creativity, instead the teachers had to adhere to a rigorous group of requirements that stunningly had no evidence proving they worked. Word walls, complicated agendas, data notebooks and two-page lesson plans were what the state and our administrators began to look for rather than good instruction. All of these things sucked up teacher’s precious time and took them away from doing the things that were more important. Pressure began to increase and many of our teachers began to leave.

Our veteran teachers began to trickle away. There is a direct pipeline from my school to Fleming Island high school considered one of the best in the state. At last count, 8 teachers had left my school for that one and they are among dozens of others who also left for greener pastures. And who can blame the veteran teachers who had already proved themselves for leaving? Less stress, kids that were interested in learning and didn’t misbehave, cultures of creativity and autonomy, and the same pay was their reward for doing so.

Next we stopped disciplining our kids. Teachers at my school learned to put up with maladaptive behavior, well the teachers that stayed anyways. If we wrote kids on referrals we would be the ones questioned and the kids wouldn’t receive consequences anyways. On occasion as they left the room they would brag that we would be the ones who got in trouble and in truth they weren’t far off.

Why did we stop disciplining kids? Well its because referrals and suspensions play a role in determining the school and a districts grade; the more referrals and suspensions the worse the grade. It became the unofficial mandate of the district that if we weren’t going to be doing well then we would at least appear to be doing well. That’s also one of the reasons some kids leave their intensive reading classes and head to their Advanced Placement literature classes.

About then the district raised the stakes and enhanced our graduation requirements something that state has followed suit with. Kids arrived at our school without the skills they need to be successful and without a work ethic. Teachers with a wink and a nod were told to pass them along no matter what and if you want evidence of this look at the districts grade recovery policies.

Grade recovery used to be for the kids that tried hard but just didn’t get it or who were sick or had a legitimate reason for missing a lot of days. Now anybody can partake in grade recovery for any reason. The kid could have been in class all year long and been a holly terror too, doing nothing but disrupting class and teachers are required to allow them grade recovery. Attendance and behavior no longer mattered.

Then we had a leadership vacuum. Our long term principal left and he was replaced with somebody who just wasn’t ready to run a school of our size and with our problems. I believe he was chosen because of his race. The district has another unwritten policy that it wants African American leaders at African American schools and after the opportunity scholarship kids arrived that is what my school became. I don’t have a problem with this if the leader is ready and capable but I think a better plan is to employ the best possible applicants regardless of race. Suddenly white teachers became implied racists if they wrote up black kids and were told they didn’t know how to deal with African American students because their behavior was a cultural thing that they just couldn’t understand.

Moral sank, more teachers left and now we have a faculty, which is over half first and second year teachers. Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates and some education deformers will have the public believe that first year teachers are just as capable as veteran ones but the reality is much different. We do have some first year teachers that hit the ground running but most take years to develop their craft. I don’t know any veteran teacher that thinks they were better when they first started than they are now. Now I am not saying the new teachers aren’t dedicated and hard working because they are. The thing is many don’t even know what they don’t know yet. That takes time and experience.

This was all exacerbated by the fact we got rid of all the things described in the first paragraph. Gone are the physics club, model UN, drama and most of the art department and for good measure we also cut home ecc. You know those things that make school worth going to for so many kids.

Bad policies, bad procedures, a lack of discipline, an unrealistic curriculum, poor leadership and a plethora of new teachers led to our downfall. All of this led to my fairly successful school being placed on the list of one of the worst schools in the state. A perfect storm struck and once the first domino fell there was no stopping the decent.

That’s how my school became an intervene school.

What do we have to look forward to? What is the district’s plan to get us out of the hole we are in? My guess would be more of the same.


  1. Now that's what you call telling it like it is. The Duval County School Board is single-handedly killing growth in Jacksonville. Any person moving to north Florida with school age children will move anywhere BUT Duval County. Clay and St. Johns will continue to be the benefactors, with Nassau on their heels.

    I hope the recent 2nd chance provided these schools will be fruitful. Maybe this will help motivate some of the parents and students (and teachers and administrators) to quit making excuses and start making a positive difference. Lead, follow, or get out of the way.

    I do believe the potential is there, but some strong leaders have to seize the moment and demand results - from all involved.

  2. A dark color is a nice choice for this blog, since positive posts are rare. BUT...

    The Duval County educational system is strange. It goes beyond education to the city's overall mentality. The County's mental make-up has to change for education to change in Duval County.

    Having moved to Duval County in the Fall of 1971, I've come to realize, this city is divided. (A.) By rich and poor, (B.) black and white, (C.) politically well-connected and near disenfranchised, (D.) city mentality and country-farm mentality; plus countless other ways only a mental health team could determine. The city is even a college football town with an NFL franchise, which it desperately wanted--and I won't debate whether the city can support said NFL franchise, today. (But football is an interesting example most here might understand.)

    The only hope education has in Duval County is an outside take-over, which forces "real" education for "all" upon this County. This seems close to happening, but given how slippery the powers-that-be in Duval County have been over the years, I don't count on this coming to pass.

    At the very top are people who have benefitted handsomely from the divisions in this city. I'm inclined to believe allowing change would have benefitted the power structure even more, but if so, this too, is a sign of how entrenched, is the strange Duval County mentality.

    Duval County may be like Amy Winehouse, incapable of recovering from its mental disorders. We will see over the next year or two, but I don't hold out much hope. However, I hope I am wrong. Duval County could be an innovative powerhouse if the County can overcome its long-standing mental health issues.