A weekend interview about class size with Leon High principal Rocky Hanna
When Amendment 8 to relax Florida school class size rules first emerged, Leon High School principal Rocky Hanna stood alongside sponsors Rep. Will Weatherford and Sen. Don Gaetz to applaud the effort to give schools more flexibility in controlling student numbers in classrooms. A few months later, he's become a leading voice in the campaign against Amendment 8. Hanna spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about his change of position.
You at first were supportive of Amendment 8. Isn't that correct?
I was for the flexibility that it could potentially bring to us as school administrators as far as scheduling a large high school. However, part of that deal did not include a cut in funding, from what I understood at the time. Last spring, it's true, I stood in between Rep. Weatherford and Sen. Gaetz about right-sizing class size. But then several weeks later the Legislature -- they kind of held me out there for what I feel like is bait, put an administrator out there as bait. I happened to be that person. Then at the end of the session they decided to withhold the final round of funding for class size. Immediately after that, the trust was broken with me.
How is that affecting you directly, your school? How did it affect you in implementing class size?
We pulled it off. And we are a fairly large high school, one of the oldest schools in Florida. And we worked our butts off this summer to make the current amendment work for our students, our teachers, and do the best we could with the resources that we had. It was disappointing that the Legislature held back the little over $350 million for the implementation of the current amendment, but we were able to make it work. And if we were able to make it work, then every other school should have been able to accomplish the same thing. ...
You know what's funny about this whole thing is that, you're young, your mother has really good intuition. Sometimes it's like scary good. And teachers are cut from the same cloth. They have the unique ability to see through the smokescreen of this whole thing. For some reason school administrators on the other hand, it's taken us a little longer to get there, to see through exactly what is going on here and why Amendment 8 is being proposed.
We've circled the wagons. You have the teachers and the school boards and the PTAs across the state, we've circled the wagons, but we're shooting in instead of shooting out. And that's what is so concerning. And I don't get it. I don't see what is so hard for FASA and other school administrators and school superintendents and boards to figure this thing out. The teachers and the parents have. This is literally a bait and switch. We've been baited with these scare tactics that are being thrown out there. We were able to make it, and again we are a fairly large high school, without resorting to the extreme measures and tactics that are being used. Without the forced busing. What if this kid walks in on the first day? All the things that are being used to scare the public into voting for Amendment 8 and for flexibility.
What are we really talking about here? What are they really doing? They're just moving the cap. They're going to take resources from us if the amendment passes. They're going to say, 'The cap isn't at 25 anymore, it's at 30. So we're going to save, I think Florida Tax Watch said, up to $1 billion a year.' Well, if we're saving $1 billion a year, where do you think that money is coming from? It's coming from education. So what have you done to me as a high school principal? Well, you've keep the class size average at 25 and you've shifted the cap to 30. I still have a cap. Just less classes and less teachers to deal with it.
You don't believe them when they say they won't take any money from education? Because they say that repeatedly.
You ever watch ESPN and Keyshawn Johnson? 'Come on, man! Really? Really? Come on, man!' I heard Weatherford say that the other day on the news, and I couldn't help but laugh. The words out of my mouth were, 'Come on, man!' Teachers don't believe it. He said we can save millions of dollars and those dollars would then be committed for textbooks and technology and teacher raises. Really? Really? The teachers have been listening to that and don't believe it. There is no trust here. No. There is no trust. They didn't even give us the final round of funding last year. So why should we believe that now? No. Their objective is to loosen the amendment, step back, loosen the amendment and take funds away from public education. There is no trust. The trust has been broken. It was broken with me shortly after I was convinced by FASA and other people to go up there and talk about flexibility. Okay. Yeah. I'd like flexibility. Who wouldn't like to have more flexibility in the master schedule? But not at the expense of dollars. And that's where this is going.
Where do you find the flexibility, then? I have spoken to principals who like the idea of smaller classes, too, but they are so concerned about having someone come in and say to them, 'You promised us smaller class sizes, and here's my kid, and I want him in a smaller class. But you don't have enough teachers. What are you going to do about it?'
I'm telling you. Honestly. We need to work harder. School administrators need to work harder. Don't use it as an excuse. If Leon High School can make it, then any school in the state of Florida can make it. And if you're not, then you're not doing your job. But don't buy in to all this crap. Because all it's going to do now, is, like I said, it's going to take the cap and move the cap. You're going to still have a cap. It just shifts five seats. Who wants that? And speaking of teachers, here in Leon County they haven't had a raise in over four years now. But they like the smaller classes. And yes it provides challenges. And no, they don't have more money in their pockets. But they have fewer papers to grade. They have less to deal with. ... We are not co-teaching one class at Leon High School. We have over 370 core classes every day in English, math, science, social studies, foreign language and exceptional student education. Not one of that 370 has the No. 26.
Are you using online education? What have you done to make it?
Yeah. We have encouraged and we do run a computer lab with kids taking course throughout the day from Florida Virtual and Leon County now actually has a franchise with Florida Virtual School. So yeah, we do have some kids taking classes online, especially in courses in the social sciences like history and government. And some are taking math online. But that's kind of the wave of the future anyway. Part of SB 4 was to require that students take at least one course online before graduating from high school. A lot of universities are requiring you to do it. So with our older kids, our more mature kids -- not necessarily our ninth graders and not in English and math that are so important at a young age -- but our older juniors and seniors that have the ability to take a class online we did encourage it and that did alleviate some of our numbers. Not a lot. I think I have 200 kids throughout the day that take a class online.
Do you find it's hard to get other administrators to see your point of view?
It was like a light went off. It finally clicked for me a month or two ago when I thought, What's really going on here? I bought into the bait and then the more I started thinking about it. I made it work at 25 even without the funding. ... Weatherford and them will tell you they've put $19 billion toward class size. Okay. On the right hand side of the ledger that might be true. What they don't show you is on the left hand side of the ledger they've cut categoricals, they've at least slowed base student allocation to a standstill. The bottom line for me is I have five less teaching positions than I did five years ago. ... And I still was able to make it.
Did your enrollment change?
No. Our enrollment didn't change. Between 1800-1900 every year. Has not changed one bit. And I did not have to cut classes like student government or yearbook or the arts. Or all of these other scare tactics that are being thrown out there. We were able to pull it off. I just fear that if Floridians buy into this, and they buy into the tactics that are being used by Weatherford and the other proponents of 8, we're just taking a step back.
You must have heard what the appropriations chairmen are saying about how you're going to get the federal stimulus funding this year but if you use it this year, be sure that you hold back money for next year because you're not going to get it again. Do you worry about that kind of thing?
We all worry about that. This is the first time I can remember in education that the federal government has actually bailed us out. The federal government came to the rescue. The federal government has always participated. but not to this level. So yeah, if those stimulus dollars and other federal programs go away, where will we be then?
Will it be harder to meet class size? Or is somebody crying wolf here? Is there a real problem that we have to face at some point?
You know, all I am worried about right now is the 2010-11 school year and taking care of these kids. A lot of people out there say, 'Rocky, why are you speaking out? Why aren't the superintendents speaking out? Or other administrators?' You'd have to ask them that. I do not have a political agenda. My agenda is the 1,900 kids that are above me right now in class. And those teachers that are teaching their butts off. That's who I am responsible to. And yeah, I have spoken out for more flexibility, but it wasn't flexibility without dollars. And now finally I have seen the light and seen this is crazy.