Graham, district present annual State of Our Schools event
Although students today are faced with rigorous expectations to prepare them for a competitive workforce, School District Superintendent Dr. Nancy Graham told those in attendance at the State of Our Schools – Partners in Education breakfast Friday morning that students are rising to the challenge with great success.
With this year’s State of Our Schools theme of “Star Wars,” The Foundation for Lee County Public Schools President and CEO Marshall Bower dressed as Yoda and Graham dressed as Princess Leia.
“The summation of what I know . . . ‘Star Wars’ goes like this – there are good guys and one really bad guy dressed in black. So, I had to ask myself how in the world do I relate all that to education,” she said. “Yoda has very few words to say. And when he says them, they are received as profound and lasting.”
Graham’s speech was broken down into seven lessons shared through Yoda.
Her first lesson, “you must unlearn what you have learned,” touched upon the difficult tasks with which educators are faced. Graham said most people have gone to school and many want to serve as local experts in running a school.
“Though it is comfortable for us to relate current life to our own experiences, it would be really helpful in the case of public education for individuals to unlearn or at least suspend personal experiences and see education for what it is today,” she said. “Heavily legislative, often politicized and insufficiently funded.”
Public education has changed in terms of requirements for high school graduation. Graham said years ago students completed their high school math requirements after finishing algebra one.
“You all know those same folks never had to pass a standardized test or end of course exam in math, history or science,” she said. “It’s likely in most cases those same people are reaping the benefits of a well-lived professional life. But today, none of those same people would be able to earn a high school diploma based on the current requirements facing our freshman class, the class of 2018.”
This year’s senior class had to earn at least a half credit of online courses to receive a high school diploma.
When adding rigorous, challenging and prescriptive academic expectations to life experiences of students that are already faced without a stable family unit, homelessness, poverty, English as a second language, neighborhood violence, mental illness and physical or emotional abuse the chance to become a kid may never come, she said.
Through all of those difficulties, Graham said there is a positive note. In 2014, Lee County achieved the highest reading learning gains in its history; performed above the state average in points earned for the state grading system; improved the district grade and this year’s high school graduates earned a combined $50 million in scholarships.
Her second lesson was titled “difficult to see, al-ways in motion is the future,” which focused on predicting what students might need to be prepared beyond their kindergarten through 12th grade education.
“As today’s educators, we are charged with preparing our students for the workforce. A workforce full of jobs yet to be defined,” Graham said. “This is the new way of work . . . preparing the future for the unknown. This is why we must focus on teaching our students how to think and problem solve. To look at math and science and literature from angles and many lenses.”
The future for the students is why the district focuses on STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – as well as STEAM, because Lee County also includes the arts in its schools. Comprehensive high schools, which allow students to earn diplomas and industry certifications, are also offered to prepare students for the workforce.
Graham said the district also invests in such student leadership programs as JROTC, where Lee County ranks as the second largest in the country.
Another lesson, “truly wonderful, the mind of a child” spoke to the district’s responsibility of acknowledging the minds they reach through relationships and programs to nurture students.
“You think Yoda stops teaching just because a student does not want to hear – a teacher Yoda is” shared information about the teachers of Lee County.
Graham said next year the school district will employ just under 6,000 teachers, 2,000 of whom have a master’s degree or higher. She said it is no easy task to hire and retain the best talent because the School District of Lee County is the biggest employer from Tampa to Miami.
“We are back to a growth pattern of an additional 1,500 to 2,000 students a year,” Graham said. “We are projected to be in that mode for the next 10 years.”
The lesson also shared information about the newest career opportunities for teachers. A teacher leader spends part of his or her day teaching and the other half coaching other teachers, which Graham said has been successful.
Grants through the National Education Association have also helped in closing the learning gap in Lee County. What started as assistance for 10 schools, will have reached 30 schools in 2016 with the grant.
“When 900 years old you reach, look as good as you will not,” highlighted the capital budget funds decrease. Graham said the combination of lower property taxes, reduced impact fees and reduced funding from the state in the past five years resulted in $656 million loss to the district’s capital budget.
“As a district and a community, we can no longer pretend the losses have no impact as we face a growing number of students,” she said. “These are our schools, yours and mine. Our schools need to be maintained while new schools will ultimately have to be built to house the children that we know are coming.”
Another lesson titled “Try, no. Do or do not. There is no try,” shared the importance of partnerships and their involvement.
“All in means more than just writing a check . . . though we are grateful for your financial support. In this partnership all in is about being an advocate of our schools, correcting misperceptions when you hear them or sharing the positives when others may want to be negative,” Graham said. “All in means we make promises to one another and we keep them.”
Some of those promises include a balanced budget without using reserved funds; measurable three-year strategic plan; nationally credited school district; increase learning gains among all groups of students; at least one school counselor at every school; 325 fewer required tests; forward movement with technology including the start of one-on-one devices for students; C to a B district and on the way to becoming an A district, as well as continuing to work with the community to keep its vision.
She closed her speech by asking the audience to “pass on always what you have learned.”
“The more who know more, the better and stronger the partnership becomes among us,” Graham said. “Our doors are open to you as we move forward and I encourage you to visit our schools. I will personally take you.”