Many of Florida's public schools are being demonized so much so that they are perceived as harming students more than helping them.
In Palm Beach County, the American Civil Liberties Union has launched a class-action lawsuit demanding that the school district close the gap in graduation rates between racial and socioeconomic groups. The Pinellas district faces a class-action lawsuit demanding that it close the academic achievement gap between white and black students.
While acknowledging that public schools share part of the blame for the gaps in graduation rates and academic achievement, Kathleen Proper, the no-nonsense principal of Woodlawn Elementary School in St. Petersburg, said that most people, even parents, know next to nothing about the serious challenges schools face each day in trying to carry out the charge of educating Florida's children.
Proper, 59, a teacher and principal for the last 34 years, said most people hold false or ill-informed assumptions about public schools based on newspaper articles, the opinions of disgruntled neighbors and the bombast of politicians who pass laws for the schools but who rarely, if ever, visit one.
"The expectations are higher now than in the past, and they should be," Proper said. "But people at the state level need to see what teachers are doing because they're killing us with mandates. They demand that we do all these things last-minute, and they don't even have a plan in place. You spend hours writing reports. I've got to pull people from being with kids to write all these reports. It's ludicrous."
Notably, of Woodlawn's 530 students, 86 percent qualify for the federal free lunch program, giving the campus the highest percentage of low-income students in the Pinellas district and a mountain of paperwork. More than 100 students are in the English as Second Language Program.
Proper (pronounced like roper) sees a direct link between children's socioeconomic status and academic success.
"With the achievement gap, many of our children in poverty schools do not come to school with the experiences that children who are not from poverty have," she said. "Therefore, you're starting at a deficit. I have children who have never been to Tyrone Mall, and they've never seen the beach. They have enormous deficits because they've had no experiences."
Writing is one of the skills measured in almost all standardized tests. Proper said that she and her teachers cannot expect children to write well if they do not have experiences. To help students, Proper and her staff, using money from a program established by St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, try to give students important experiences their families do not give them.
"When children don't have any experiences, they also don't have the ability to make it up," Proper said. "They don't have a clue. So, we're going to do major field trips, taking the children to the aquarium, the beach, letting them see the sea life, hands-on, all of that. My art teacher took the third grade to the G.Wiz Hands-on Science Museum in Sarasota. They're exposed to art, technology, science — an integration of 100 percent of the curriculum. The children were beside themselves, not to mention they rode in a fancy bus that showed movies, too."
Proper is convinced that such efforts are part of the reason that Woodlawn Elementary is incrementally closing the achievement gap between white and black students. In fact, her black students recently tested higher in reading than her white students, she said.
This progress does not, however, impress state officials because the school has not made higher, mandated improvement for the last four years.
As a result, Woodlawn is required to "restructure" and make itself "different." Proper said she is excited about restructuring because it will give her an opportunity to put her personal stamp on how and what students learn and on how teachers teach. Her first move will be eliminating some of the five state-required student tests. Five tests, she said, are too many.
"Instead of testing our children to death," she said, "we're going to use teacher judgment, teachers' assessment. I can walk around a classroom after presenting a lesson and just by conferencing with children, I know if they're getting it or not. I don't need to give a test."
Along with eliminating tests, Proper plans to implement "looping," a practice that is catching on in many districts nationwide. Teachers stay with their students from one grade all the way through the next, meaning that teachers and students stay together for two years instead of the traditional one. Kindergarten teachers stay with their students through first grade, and second grade teachers stay with theirs through third and so on.
"Relationship is the name of the game," she said. "We want to build relationships with our families, our communities and our children. It takes a lot of time to build genuine relationships, getting the chemistry of the class and the family dynamics. I tell my teachers that if you don't build that relationship, that foundation, children aren't going to like you. And if they don't like you, they won't work for you.
"After a teacher starts with her class in kindergarten, she has everything figured out when they start first grade. She already knows the families, and the families are into the teacher because they know the teacher cares about 'my baby.' The teacher knows what to expect of the students academically, and the students can't pull their little tricks."
Having witnessed firsthand the mixed results of busing and court-ordered integration for three decades, Proper is willing to give the Pinellas student assignment plan a chance.
"I have always been a believer in parents and family involvement," she said. "They want their children to attend school closer to home so they can become involved with the school. If you live 20 miles away, you can't get there like you'd like to. I have a student who's on the bus for an hour and 15 minutes. That's too long for any child. Why not try choice and get that family involvement, get back to neighborhood schools. I've always felt that (busing) was unfair because it's been black students who've had to travel so far."
Proper holds parents strictly accountable for their children, making sure their children attend school regularly; getting them there on time; not taking them out of school too early in the day; and giving them a safe life away from school that encourages academic achievement.
She acknowledges that tardiness and absenteeism are serious problems at Woodlawn, with some parents dropping off their children after 10, when school begins at 8:50. A few weeks ago, she wrote what she calls "a come-to-prayer-meeting letter" to parents reminding them of their responsibilities for their children's attendance.
"I told them that we want to teach your children, so that your children will learn," she said. "But children aren't going to do it on their own. When you bring them in at 10, you're interrupting their education and the entire group's education because everything has to stop while Joey comes in, and now the teacher's got to catch up Joey."
When parents fail to get their children to school regularly, Proper often gets personally involved. In one case, after a couple said their son refused to come to school, she spoke with the boy on the telephone.
"I told him that if he didn't come to school, 'Miss Proper will come get you,' " she said. " 'If you're in your pajamas, we will get your clothes. You can dress at school. You're coming to school.' Well, he didn't come to school, so I'm like, darn, that usually works."
She and the guidance counselor drove to the home, and found the boy hiding under his bed. Proper ordered him to come out, but he refused. With the parents' consent, she picked up the angry child, took him to her car and drove him to school. The mother came along to hold the boy in the backseat. He now attends school regularly.
"I have no problem going above and beyond to get my kids to school," Proper said.
"Going above and beyond" also includes arriving at school around 7 each morning and leaving around 7 each night. With an open door policy, Proper said a lot of her job involves "putting out fires all day" — stopping fights, managing confrontational parents, consoling distraught children, advising teachers.
"People don't know what's happening in their public schools," she said. "They don't see the challenges. I want Gov. Charlie Crist to spend a day at my school to see what we do, what's expected of us and the miracles we work. And we really do work miracles."