Monroe County Superintendent of Schools Mark Porter ended his two-week series of Community Engagement Sessions Wednesday in front of a lively crowd at Sugarloaf School.
The audience members were given electronic "clickers" to assign letter grades to the district's perceived performance in various categories, including the superintendent, the school district and the School Board. The Sugarloaf group gave the administration mostly D's and F's for its performance in such matters as the handling of finances, and the lack of resources available for classrooms and after-school activities.
"At first glance I would sense that this was a tougher-grading audience than others that we saw over the course of the sessions," Porter conceded after the event. "The other sessions didn't exactly give us glowing marks either, but this group definitely tended to skew a little lower. However, it's not a scientific survey. It's there to give us a look into where the perceptions are."
Among the 30 or so people in attendance were School Board members Robin Smith-Martin, representing District 1, Ed Davidson, representing District 3 and Board Chairman Andy Griffiths. School District watchdogs Larry Murray and Sloan Bashinsky were also present, and took part in the free-wheeling discussion that took place after the clicker grading period.
Of particular interest to many of the parents with kids in the school system, were issues such as declining enrolment, bullying, crowded classrooms, what one woman described as an unfair equilibrium between resources provided to the 1,000 or so students in the growing number of charter schools in the district, and their public school equivalents, and technical and vocational opportunities for local students who do not wish to pursue a college education.
Several participants also agreed there was "room for improvement with food," noting that the district's vendor once advertised on its website that it was a provider of cut-rate provisions to a number of prison systems.
"The food issue is a challenging area," Porter agreed. "Especially on a pretty tight budget."
Opportunities to learn second languages in the district was also mentioned, and the super pointed out that at present, only Spanish and Mandarin Chinese education are available at certain schools.
One woman, who had attended a previous engagement session in Key West, said she was "flabbergasted" at the number of resources and opportunities Monroe County students have lost over the years, "due to the actions of irresponsible adults."
"It's not fair," she added. "Children are suffering and teachers are fed up."
Porter was given credit, however, for starting the process and encouraging the community to take part.
For his part, the superintendent expressed his desire to see more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) courses and opportunities made available to area students, but also reminded the audience that at some point the district is going to need more money to make that happen.
One woman also said that learning has to "become fun again."
Key Wester Margaret Romero, who attended three of Porter's Keyswide sessions, said she thought the intent of the gatherings was good, but that she didn't think "Porter adequately addressed the questions that have come up. There has been hedging," she said, on issues such as "bullying, and the drug problem at Key West High School."
Porter said he will now begin contacting volunteers who have been selected to become part of his "action planning teams."
On Tuesday and Saturday of next week, these volunteers will gather in the media room of Marathon Middle High School to put their heads together parsing the information that has been collected through the process.
Out of those sessions, Porter expects to walk away with "a mission, a vision and five to six major strategic objectives."
These objectives will then be handed off to district employees in "action planning teams," who will lay out objectives, and a path toward meeting them.
"Along the way the School Board will be part of the process," Porter said. "In June, we'll bring the plan before them for approval."