From an analysis of the data, observations of schools, and interviews with school district officials, the SchoolMatch Audit team makes the following recommendations to the Polk County School District:
1. Enhance Human Resource Development
As in any enterprise, the people associated with the Polk County Schools are the lifeblood of its success. The Site Visit Team recommends the following improvements in human resource development:
a. Leadership Succession Planning: Current longevity of administrative staff combined with the effect of Deferred Retirement Options Program (DROP) provisions place an immediate responsibility upon school officials to provide intern training opportunities for aspiring district administrators. If the school district leadership does not, vast numbers of administrative positions may go vacant, creating both continuity issues and diminished leadership capacity. Therefore, the Site Visit Team recommends efforts be initiated to recruit prospective administrative staff and create additional administrative internship opportunities and incentives.
b. Expand Pool of Teacher Applicants: In its review, the Site Visit Team learned that only 12 elementary teacher applications (see Appendix G) were presently on file in the district human resource office. Examination of other teaching levels and areas resulted in similar observations. Such a situation results in a generic lack of selectivity throughout the district and the potential for positions remaining vacant for significant periods of time. Therefore, the Site Visit Team recommends district personnel expand college campus recruiting visits to recruit teachers and staff, consider offering signing bonuses, and explore salary level advancement based upon applicant’s critical area certification status and district staffing needs. Particular focus might be placed on recent college graduates and educational retirees from northern states where the Polk County climate can be a major recruiting factor. It is further recommended Teach For America, a program designed to provide teacher applicants for low socioeconomic schools, be accessed for outstanding college graduates licensed to teach who will commit a minimum of two years to work in public schools in low income communities.
c. Implementation of Structured Interviews: The Site Visit Team believes it is important for an organization to achieve a high level of consistent professional competence and a high level of congruence between individual and systemic vision and mission. To help accomplish this, further attention needs to be directed to a consistent process used to select candidates for employment. Thus, the Site Visit Team recommends that personnel office staff be trained and certificated to administer a structured teacher and support staff interviews as part of the application process for all candidates at all levels of employment. A structured interview process is already in place for administrative candidates. Expanded implementation will provide an additional tool for comparing/selecting candidates and minimize claims of discriminatory employment practices.
d. Staff development: The correlation between strong student achievement and outstanding staff development is well documented in the research literature. Each member of the Site Visit Team noted a general lack of centrally organized and financed coordinated staff development activities. Indeed, each Site Visit Team member encountered schools where staff development commitment and activities were apparently not available. Many of these schools are desperately in need of such support, as expressed by teachers and administrators. It is apparent many principals strive to be effective instructional leaders, but need district programs promoting leadership skills. In order to raise student achievement by assuring a consistent level of teacher knowledge and ability to deliver services commensurate with district educational objectives, the Site Visit Team recommends the district offer long-term and sustained professional development for all teachers. It is further recommended that formal instructional leadership development programs for principals be implemented.
e. Diversity Recruitment: Minority staffing of teachers is not proportional to the student population. It is important for students in the District to be able to identify with high-level leadership people of all races and ethnicities commensurate with the diversity of the student body and the larger Polk County community. The Site Visit Team recommends highly visible, purposeful, and far-ranging efforts be implemented to recruit and employ minority teachers and administrators. It is also recommended additional female administrators be recruited and assigned to high-level (assistant superintendent level and above) central office leadership positions.
2. Improve District’s Reading Program
Data provided to the Site Visit Team about student reading performance suggest a significant problem in student reading skills within the district beyond grade 1. Although some progress in the fundamentally important foundation area of reading is evident, it is also apparent that more progress would be made if greater consistency of programs/adoptions were instituted across grades within individual schools and among schools.
The principal purpose of such an effort is to facilitate improvement of student reading skills through increased continuity for an internally mobile student body. In addition, greater efficiency in the areas of resource allocation, monitoring, coaching and staff development will further facilitate improved reading performance.
The site visit team, consequently, recommends that the Board of Education and Administration give careful consideration to a sequential and continuous reading program, a supportive systematic professional development plan and purchase of related materials and textbooks. This is particularly important when considering the current district level of support for staff development is 1/4th of 1 percent of the operating budget.
3. Ensure Instructional Monitoring and Intervention Across All Schools
Unevenness in the delivery of quality instruction was observed by Site Team Members while visiting schools. For example, members of the Team observed many schools with commendable levels of teacher and student engagement, and some schools where inadequate levels were evident. Additionally, the Team observed schools in which staff enthusiasm and commitment were clearly evident and some other schools where the same dimension could only be described as lacking. In other instances, the Site Visit Team observed many schools where high quality classroom management was evident, and some others where lack of consistent classroom management skills were applied. Finally, “time-on-task” observations suggest a wide disparity in how available instructional time is utilized by the teaching staff.
Therefore, it is recommended that robust monitoring of instructional programs be instituted throughout the Polk County Public Schools. One method of doing so would be to create an instructional audit team or teams to systematically analyze how much instruction goes on and its quality. The results of the work of these teams, written records, could be utilized by any and all instructional support personnel, building instructional leaders and teachers. Instructional monitoring should also include efforts to reduce grade inflation where it exists (see Achievement/Grade Point Average: Grade Inflation, page 27) and improve AP student performance levels as measured by AP exams.
Training needs to be intensified so that all principals in the district understand they are the instructional leaders of their schools. Research indicates this is such a fundamental part of the role of an effective principal, it should not be delegated and thus relegated to others.
There appears to be a paucity of effort across the district to engage female students in non-traditional career path requisite courses such as drafting/illustrative design, electronic technology, engineering systems, engineering technology, communications technology, computer electronic technology, and printing. In these courses for the 2001-2002 school year, there were 941 males and only 398 females enrolled (see Appendix J1, select vocation course enrollments 2001-2002). In addition, there appears to be a need to recruit students in higher level mathematics and physical science courses in certain high schools in the district See Appendix J2, select enrichment course enrollments 2001-2002).
It is recommended that administrators, counselors and teachers work with parents and students to proactively recruit female students into non-traditional career path course requisites. In addition, professional females such as engineers, pharmacists, scientists, physicians and astronauts could be asked to participate more visibly in career awareness initiatives in order to provide appropriate role models.
4. Replicate and Expand High Level Educational Opportunities to Better Serve All Students in the District
School visitations by Site Team members revealed the implementation of many quality and/or innovative programs and instructional strategies that promoted and contributed to high student academic performance. However, these efforts were not observed to be pervasive across the County, particularly in schools where the data reflected low levels of student achievement and students were observed to not be highly engaged in meaningful learning tasks.
To reverse pockets of poorer reading performance and higher dropout rates among some county schools, the district office must develop a systematic plan to replicate and support the expansion of effective best practice approaches across all schools. This will require a change in the culture of the organization that advocates and encourages autonomous site based instructional leadership, accountability, and recognition to the exclusion of quality district-wide initiatives. The district school improvement planning process could be the vehicle for facilitating this transformation by implementing instructional audit teams and peer review approval processes.
Therefore, the Site Team recommends the district immediately develop a systemwide plan for replicating and supporting effective instructional approaches and delivery systems across all schools that contribute to higher levels of student achievement, school success, and preparation for life beyond high school.
5. Examine the Equity of the District-wide Technology Plan
In visiting many Polk County Public Schools sites, the Site Visit Team observed varying levels of technology. In discussion with staff and administrators, the degree to which a school acquires technology is highly dependent upon the individual efforts of the building principal. Given the pivotal role of technology in daily life, it is important that all students have access to technology and acquire a high level of technological literacy. The Site Visit Team recommends that the Polk County Public Schools develop a plan to provide each school with sufficient technology to ensure frequent access and use by students. Consideration should be given to standardization of administrative programs to ease the problems associated with transferring student records between locations. Interfacing the administrative system with student achievement information would serve to support the instructional program and assist in raising student achievement the principal goal of the district.
6. Re-examine and Improve the School District’s Identity, Capacity to Deal with Underachieving Schools and Governance Structure
In order to ensure systemic improvement in the school district, it is important to address issues of the district’s identity, capacity to deal with chronically underachieving schools, and its governance structure:
a. District Identity: The Site Visit Team observed sometimes subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle lack of identification with the Polk County School District among schools and staff. For example, school signs, business cards, newsletters, brochures and handbooks generally identify the school or unit with no reference to the Polk County Public Schools. It is important for fiscal stability, programmatic accountability and district cohesiveness to make efforts to let parents, students, taxpayers and all constituents know the affiliation with the system. Part of identity development could include a district-wide contest to create a new Polk County Public Schools logo to be displayed on district and school publications. Therefore, it is recommended that a low-cost, high-impact campaign be initiated to create a stronger image that promotes Polk County Public Schools as a school system rather than a disparate collection of schools and individuals.
b. Reconstitution of schools: An analysis of the school site data strongly indicates that the Polk County Administration should consider the full reconstitution of a small number of schools which have a history of low performance levels. From time to time, it has proven to be beneficial to provide a fresh start with a change of culture for troubled schools. When reconstitution has been successfully used in similar school systems throughout the country, all employees in the school have been removed from the building, and applications for filling each position were considered. Usually, very few existing employees from the school were selected for on-going work at that site. All displaced employees, traditionally, have been administratively re-assigned to other locations in the district.
c. Governance: Although SchoolMatch takes no position, nor should it, on the qualifications or effectiveness of any individual within the school system, we strongly believe the on-going issue of governance has been a concern for many years. The most significant on-going factor affecting governance in the Polk County Schools the practice of electing the County Superintendent appears to have caused a high degree of politicization in leadership roles. Polk County is the largest school system in the United States still electing its Superintendent. Forcing school administrators to openly align themselves with political parties or opposing political groups is counter-productive. This political process creates tension among school employees who feel obligated to take sides in an administrative leadership election.
When elected superintendents decide to run for re-election, they place themselves in a weakened position since they cannot afford to offend potential voters. Further, an elected Superintendent often feels obliged to reward school personnel who supported her or him by awarding patronage jobs/promotions or other emoluments to them. Even more critical, the elected Superintendent is not an employee of the duly elected School Board, with all the normal requirements of accountability to the elected governing body compromised through the polarity created by dual public elections. In addition, effectively requiring the Superintendent candidate to stand for election from within the County significantly reduces the pool of qualified candidates available to lead a major educational enterprise.
As a result, extended improvement in the instructional program is not likely to continue at the level required to keep pace with critical learning needs and support requirements emerging daily in the district. The unevenness of student performance between schools within the district, absence of consistent articulation between the central office and individual schools, and the lack of uniform application of school system resources suggest the need for a careful assessment of the current governance model.
Thus, leadership effectiveness is compromised by this method of selecting a Superintendent. Therefore, we recommend that the citizenry, working in conjunction with its governmental leadership, give careful consideration to changing its method of selecting a Superintendent through either state legislation or a local referendum.