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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

How to Transform Duval County Public Schools

Once again within the last decade, we face another transition in the office of the superintendent of schools for Duval County. Once again, we are facing the task of finding another person who can transform our school system for the better. I hope that we can ensure that local education reform is something that includes buy-in from the community at-large - including the students, the parents, educators and our local business partners. Real educational change is going to need input from the people whom our schools serve.

If I were to run for the school board, I would take into consideration the following issues that continue to haunt our school system:

1.) Discipline --- Do we wonder why so many parents are opting to send their kids to private or charter schools? It is because they do not feel like they can trust the public school system to create a safe learning atmosphere for their children. Why do so many parents in the public school system move Heaven and earth to get their kids even considered for attending a magnet school? These parents rightfully seek to place their children in schools that are a safe learning atmosphere for their children. Because of politics, however, all of Florida's public schools lose points in their school grade if they actually enforce their respective Codes of Conduct. Yes, there are fewer suspensions in a school district. It is not because students are learning to get along better. It is because of bureaucratic games that our administrators play to curry favor with the state Department of Education. It is cold comfort for a parent to know that the schools are more interested in papering over real danger as opposed to rooting out the student behavior that harms the overall learning atmosphere.

2.) Programs --- My mother had an uncle who worked for Sonoco in South Carolina. One day, he was fired from his job. The next day, he shaved his mustache and applied for his old job. He was hired back with no questions asked. The problem with Duval County Public Schools is that they do something similar. They bring in expensive programs and ideas. To implement these programs, they hire expensive consultants to tell the district what it needs to do. After the teachers are goaded into playing along, the program disappears into the sunset. Is it any wonder that many teachers are skeptical when the district administration decides to embrace something new and novel. Our school district is fickle with these fly-by-night programs and this means that they are being fickle with our tax dollars. What is most frustrating is how the downtown administrators immediately blame the teachers for not being competent at carrying out these ever-changing orders and how the downtown administrators tend to stifle dissent. Once the program has failed, though, the district is about as likely to issue mea culpas for thair failure as Yassir Arafat would have kept to a kosher diet. Some programs have longevity, like the reign of terror in the form of a state consent decree regarding the education of English Language Learners (ELLs). To better serve students for whom English is a second language, the school system threatened the certificates of otherwise highly qualified teachers. One teacher who was forced to retire for 'failing to accommodate her ELL students' was someone who was teaching an ELL education class at the University of North Florida. This nationally certified teacher chose to quit altogether than deal with the serpentine bureaucracy that claims to know best.

3.) Accountability --- My third point is closely related to the second. If the school board's strategy is to light a fire under the teachers to best serve our students, they are failing in their cause. Too many good teachers are either leaving or thinking about leaving because they are spending more and more time on tinkering around the edges of the learning gap. The content of the lessons often does not matter in the eyes of bean counters from downtown who routinely terrorize administrators and teachers alike with their gotcha 'focus walks' that seem to be intended merely to catch teachers doing something wrong. Mind you, this wrongdoing is not even remotely connected to over abuse of the students. The teachers ills and sins include the shameful failure to post a Stepford bulletin board that looks exactly like the other bulletin boards in the same hallway or in the same district. A teacher can put on a show for these inspectors by putting up a 'word wall' that seems to draw only the attention of adults. This is all in spite of research that claims that students are going to learn more because they have everything laid out for them in a way that saps any creativity from what the teacher as a professional can contribute to the learning process. Cookie cutter classrooms are nice for people who are looking to check off boxes but fails to realize that they are forcing schools to kowtow to adults who have nothing better to do during the day except for point out the misgivings of others while retreating to offices there they have not had to deal directly with children in a long time. Their only interaction with students is during their 'focus walk' inspections where they deliberately choose the children who will answer their probing questions in ways that draw aspersion on the teacher's competence. We should redirect their expertise and knowledge on the part of downtown administrators from bullying our schools toward taking proactive steps to mentor our educators in a more constructive atmosphere that encourages teachers to do their best for our students.

4.) Feedback --- For far too long, the Duval County School system has been very punitive with its personnel regarding feedback regarding local education policy. Dissenters are immediately labeled as troublemakers and are targeted for harassment and/or dismissal. These games are akin to what happened in that Tim Robbins film, 'Arlington Road.' The establishment, however far-fetched as it sounds, manages through its inner workings to portray their critics as loony. This is part of a larger paradox. When the rank-and-file 'reasonable minds' are cowed into silence, the alleged extremists are the ones who are left to fill the void. To add to this paradox is how our schools' leadership treats those who speak up after leaving the education profession, deriding them as 'disgruntled' as if these critics only have a chip on their shoulder and want to bring about the downfall of those in charge out of sour grapes and not from a desire to improve things for those who remain in the classroom. The school system is very effective at marginalizing these people but not necessarily as successful at fighting the issues that caused such discontent in the first place. The members of the school board may nod their heads in agreement with those who speak out during public discussion time, but they go back to their work maintaining the status quo as they always have. Transformation of our school system should include a mature public dialogue that really challenges the way that things are done in the schools. I guarantee that employee morale would improve drastically if the educators and education support professionals are able to shape the system for which they work instead of being forced to tow the line for a system that dictates how everything is done. I sincerely believe that the best working conditions for educators are the best learning conditions for our students.

I can honestly say that none of these above ideas would cost a dime to our school district. There are no hidden interests or agendas behind my ideas. I only seek that common sense be our guide in educating the students and developing citizens in a community that works for all...

That is just my two cents, of course...



John Louis Meeks, Jr.

1 comment:

  1. John Louis Meeks Jr. is teaching / has taught 3 of my 4 kids. What an amazing teacher who empowers his students and gives them the world with his teachings. He has amazing insight into what N-E-E-D-S to be done in Duval County Schools!!! Should he decide to run he has our family's full support in his quest for the job. YOU ARE AWSOME Mr. John Louis Meeks Jr.