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Monday, November 22, 2010

Even in failure the St. Johns County school district gets it right

Even in failure the St. Johns County public school system got it right.

The Florida Times Union recently ran a story about St. Johns County’s lone failing school, St. Johns technical high school. This is a big deal for several different reasons. First because St. Johns County is the highest achieving district in the state and any news of failure is big news and second because even in failure the St. Johns County school district has gotten it right.

The vast majority of the kids that go to St. Johns vocational high school are unlike the kids in the rest of the county, they aren't going to go to college and quite frankly they have struggled throughout their academic carrers. “Most since the first day of kindergarten” the piece mentions, and perhaps the main reason for this is because many of the kids have disabilities. At this school however instead of just struggling as they would at a typical high school, they can also earn a certificate in a variety fields such as cosmetology, landscaping or culinary arts. They learn a skill that prepares them or life that far more than learning the quadratic formula and how to conjugate verbs does. This is how St. Johns County got it right.

Capable disabled students in Duval County have no such option and very little in the way of opportunity. Despite their disabilities we are in the process of shoving them into the same one size fits all, everybody is going to go to college curriculum that the district has deemed is appropriate for everybody. What’s the difference in curriculum between a highly motivated student at Stanton with an IQ of 120 who wants to be an engineer and a learning disabled student at Ed White who has an IQ of 80 and who wants to drive a truck? The answer is, there is none.

Also since we are doing away with special diploma options, I believe partly because kids that earn them will begin to count against a schools grade, we are forcing kids who after ten years of school and who can’t do their times tables into algebra classes where they will either fail or receive the “gentlemen’s C” that dominates so many teachers grade books. Also, you ever wonder why kids act out in class? Well one of the biggest reasons is the material is too much for them and it leads to frustration which leads to bad behavior. Many of our disabled children act out the most. See a correlation?

I get that the powers that be think that some of these students haven’t been given the proper opportunities to test their academic mettle and that they hope when put in these advanced for them academic settings they will be able to be successful. What they don’t get however is that if wishes were real we would all be riding rocket powered unicorns. Instead of blowing the system up, why don’t we here in Duval County do something realistic and put the kids in situations they can not only potentially be successful in but will also give them a tangible benefit like earning a certificate. Why don’t we do something like St. John’s County does? Though I guess there is a reason why they are considered one of the best school districts in Florida and Duval County is considered something different.

I am a special education teacher and it does my heart good to see one of my kids succeed in the regular education setting but likewise it breaks my heart to see kids thrust into those situations who have no real chance at being successful and it frustrates me to know end that we are teaching these kids things they most likely will never get and if by some miracle they did would never use. We should not just be okay with these kids learning a technical skill but we should encourage it and celebrate it when they earn them. However once again we have designed our schools around the kids we wish we had preparing them for the jobs we want them to do and in the process almost assured that the kids we do have won’t be successful post school.

Many of Duval Counties disabled kids will graduate ill prpared to continue their education and unlike their counterparts in St. Johns county without a skill. Well what do you think is going to happen to them? The best and brightest will get menial dead end jobs and the others will continue on the dole of society either recieving public assistance or for some who when faced with few options make bad choices a period of enforced residency at the behest of the state.

Perhaps what’s most frustrating in all this is it wasn’t that long ago that Duval County got it right. We had award winning skill centers that kids would go to half a day where they could learn the trades and skills that they and their parents thought would better suit them and the other half of the day they would be at their home schools where they would learn their academics. The skill centers have now sadly gone away replaced with academic magnets that many of our regular and most of our special education students cannot be successful in. Every year kids trickle away from Frank Peterson because they couldn’t cut the mustard, heading back to their neighborhood schools where they often continue to languish.

We desperately need an option or our disabled kids and our kids that either don’t have the aptitude or interest in going to college. Our one size it’s all curriculum, where we have devalued the teaching of the trades, skills and arts has led directly many of the districts problems. Furthermore I know we want every kid to go to college and that’s a laudable goal, sadly it’s also an unrealistic goal. Instead of having a school system for the kids we wish we had, I think it would do us, them and the district well to have a school system appropriate for the ones we do. Even though they knew it would be hard and extra work in St. Johns County, even though they realized they might not be successful when it was factored into the states cookie cutter system that rarely takes the concerns of the children into consideration, they did it anyways. They made a place for all their students, why can’t we.

In the end, even in "failure" because they made their special needs children a priority St. Johns County got it right.

Chris Guerrieri
School Teacher

1 comment:

  1. Chris,

    Thanks for sharing-you've "got it right". I promise to write that letter to the President over the vacation-something has to change.