About 80 people turned out Thursday evening for a panel discussion on K-12 education at the Florida Children’s Museum, hosted by LkldNow and Lakeland Vision. Some common themes of the evening were frustration with state laws and testing, and appreciation for teachers. Here is a video of the entire forum followed by some session highlights.

Economically disadvantaged students tend to lag behind their more affluent peers on state tests. What can be done to close the gap?

Kay Fields
Kay Fields

Longtime School Board Member Kay Fields said inequities are real and problematic, but she thinks testing has been emphasized too heavily.

“Now, should kids be tested? Yes. But there should be other ways to measure where they are academically,” Fields said. “To say that a child is not learning academically because of one test, to me, it’s just very flawed. And it’s not fair to the students. It’s not fair to the staff, all of the educators, everybody … It’s not fair to our community, and it makes public education look like we’re not doing our job, which is a disservice to everybody.”

She said pre-kindergarten programs play an important role in preparing children for school, but accessing those programs can be a struggle for low-income families.

“A lot of the kids haven’t even been in pre-K or Head Start. So they immediately come from home into a classroom with no skills. Some don’t even have social skills,” Fields said. 

She also said many families don’t have access to high-speed internet at home.

“We think everybody has a computer. They don’t … We think every parent knows how to use the portal. They don’t,” Fields said. “So finding ways that we can help educate our parents, educate our students, and make sure that they have the resources in place to be the very best that they can be.”

What is the school district doing to help special education students, who haven’t always gotten the services they need?

Lisa Miller
Lisa Miller

School Board Member Lisa Miller, a longtime advocate for students with disabilities, said the pendulum has swung in special education from setting expectations too low — which shortchanged higher-functioning students — to now doing a disservice to students with the most significant needs.

“You saw them get rid of the special diploma, because students who were very much aware and capable of getting a high school diploma were being given a piece of paper saying they went to school. They couldn’t go into military — that was not even an option — and it was hard for them to get employment because they did not have a high school diploma.”

However, she said the shift toward rigor and testing went too far. Miller has a 21-year-old son who is nonverbal and profoundly autistic. She said she took him out of public school because of mandatory testing.

“He was made to sit for a test where he punched himself in the head while they asked the question, had to wait 10 seconds, write ‘no response,’ and turn the page,” she said.

Education forum panelists
The forum was moderated by Kimberly C. Moore, left. Panelists were, from left, Lois Horn-Diaz, Kay Fields, Lisa Miller and Frederick Heid. | Laura Rodriguez, Lakeland Vision

“We need to start having that conversation to bring it back to the middle, because it’s about outcomes,” Miller said. And the most important outcome for students with special needs — although not always attainable — is employability. 

Miller said one bright spot in special education, although there is still a long way to go, is the district’s emphasis on “transition” in the years after graduation. Students with disabilities can attend public school until they’re 22 years old, typically focusing on employment skills after regular grade levels. 

“When these kids are employed in the community, you break the circle of poverty,” Miller said. “And so that’s my goal: To make sure that every child who can be employed, will be. And if they’re not gainfully employed, they have community and they have a way to volunteer and be in our community.” 

How has teaching changed? What could educators do in the past that they can’t do now?

Lois Horn-Diaz
Lois Horn-Diaz

Lois Horn-Diaz, who was recognized as Polk County’s Teacher of the Year in 2017, said she started her career as a school psychologist, not a teacher, which enabled her to visit “many, many classrooms.”

“What I saw in those, what I call the ‘golden years’ of education, was just amazing things being done by amazing teachers,” Horn-Diaz said. “What I saw in room A was different than what I saw in room B and room C, but each environment was meeting the needs of students. That is probably the thing that I regret most, throughout my journey in education, is to see the loss of that variety.”

“Give that freedom back to the teachers,” she encouraged. “Teachers are highly trained … They’re given their certification — their professional certification — but yet they’re not able to operate as a professional. They’re treated as if they were interns being supervised by a system. That’s just wrong.”

Horn-Diaz said she likes to envision K-12 education as a tapestry with a variety of colors, textures and shapes — each part woven by a different educator. “If we standardize the entire system, so that everybody is doing things the same way, the same time, at the same moment, we have lost the diversity in that beautiful tapestry.”

“And here’s the irony: All of the standardization, what has it done for us? Are test scores improving?” she asked. “If we’re using a system that demands conformity, and it’s not getting results, what does that tell us?”

She acknowledged that sometimes, when “Teacher A” is doing exciting and innovative things in the classroom but “Teacher B” is not, parents get upset and barrage the school with calls, wanting their child to be with the more passionate, creative teacher. But she said the answer isn’t to force educators to do everything the same way.

“My solution is, if you have a teacher who has demonstrated mastery, you leave that teacher alone. If you have a teacher that, for whatever reason, is not up to the challenge, put things in place to support that teacher,” Horn-Diaz said. “Perhaps that teacher needs someone looking over their shoulders. But to do it across-the-board is insanity. 

After the school shooting in Parkland, the state Legislature mandated hiring more mental health counselors. Are we seeing any results?

Frederick Heid
Frederick Heid

Polk County Schools Superintendent Frederick Heid said mental health is probably the single biggest challenge in schools, and not just because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Think about the environment our kids are being raised in. They’re dealing with issues that we never faced,” Heid said. “The worst thing that could happen to you when I was a kid is you were passing a note, somebody else got ahold of it, and the teacher read it aloud. That was the worst thing that could happen. Now, the whole world gets it because I posted on Snapchat or I post on Instagram and somebody else takes a screenshot of it. … It lingers and persists forever. And our children are not prepared for that. They’re being exposed to content online that they never are prepared for, and we’re not regulating that.”

He said the push to provide mental health support is important, but there are two huge obstacles. One is a statewide shortage of licensed behavioral or mental health counselors. The other is a lingering stigma about getting help.

Heid said that there was a time in his professional career when he needed some counseling.

“And this is how fearful I was to seek assistance. I looked up every single mental health provider that was provided to us through EAP — our employee assistance program — and I went into the computer system to make sure none of them were parents in my school district. I was that concerned that, no matter what you say about ethics and confidentiality, that somehow it’d be disclosed that I had to go for talk therapy. … I was even worried about getting out of the car and being seen walking across the parking lot to enter that facility, because it was a shared complex.”

He said the district has raised salaries to try to attract more counselors, but many job slots are still unfilled. The district has also contracted with Hazel Health to provide up to five counseling sessions per student, after which they make a referral, but not many students are making use of the service.

“When we talk about whether or not mental health counseling has really had the impact that we need it to, there’s no accurate measure of that right now. Because we’re still seeing chronic absenteeism — which can be a direct result of mental health issues or behavioral issues. We’re still seeing low academic attainment. We’re seeing low level engagement,” he said.

He added: “We all, at some point in our lives, need that person we can talk to in a safe space, and I would hope that more people become receptive of it, including our families.”

Fields said in her more than 20 years on the school board, she has never seen as many cases of contemplated suicides or suicides among young people as now.

“It’s very sad,” Fields said. “And so as parents, if you are listening: If you see anything that doesn’t even look right, it doesn’t feel right. You know your child. You should know your child better than anybody else. You need to make sure that you seek help for them. And there are many, many resources available, even outside of the school district. … Call Superintendent Heid. They can call any of us, and we will direct them as best we can.”

There is a dire teacher shortage — not just in Polk County, but nationwide. What is the district doing to hire more teachers?

Miller said people tend to think that pay is the biggest factor in recruitment and retention of teachers, but that’s not the case. Many teachers have left the profession, and college students are not flocking to education programs.

“But if you talk to the teacher, very rarely does somebody say, ‘I’m leaving because I don’t get paid enough money.’ It’s not what they’re saying. They’re leaving because they don’t feel supported. They’re leaving because of behavior issues in the classroom,” she said. 

“As a country we have to value teachers and what they do. We have to value education,” Miller said. “I’m not sure when the social war started on our education and especially our teachers. Our teachers love kids. They come from every walk of life.”

Heid said there are about 7,000 teacher vacancies in Florida. 

“It’s not just because of the salaries. It’s because people don’t value the profession any longer,” Heid said. “We have lost sight of what matters in education. … When you look at surveys about teachers leaving the profession, salary usually is number five. Politics of education, diminishment of the profession, lack of parental engagement and respect, and leadership — I have to own the leadership piece — those are the top four.”

What can parents do to ensure that their children are learning?

Fields said the single most important thing parents can do is make sure their children go to school every day.

“Students cannot learn if they’re not present. Make sure that they’re on time. If they’re late, they’re missing something.”

She also said, “The importance of reading cannot be understated. Every child should read at least 15 minutes a day. Fifteen minutes a day. The impact that reading can make — it can’t even be described, in my opinion. But should the child just be reading by themselves? No. The parents should be reading, too, and making sure that whatever the child likes to read, that those books are available. Don’t force them to read something that they’re not interested in. Let them choose. Take them to the library. Buy them some books.

Fields said those two things can go a long way toward helping a child be successful in school.

“Because at the end of the day, what I say all the time is for many of us — and for many of our students — education is the only way out. The only way out of what? The only way out of poverty. Education is the only way out,” Fields said.

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Cindy Glover moved to Lakeland in 2021 after spending two decades in South Florida. Her career has included journalism, education, digital marketing and public relations. She worked for the Albuquerque Journal and South Florida Sun-Sentinel and spent a year as a community engagement coordinator for the City of Lakeland before joining LkldNow.

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