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Catherine Martinez: An open letter to Palm Beach County Superintendent Robert Avossa

Monday, July 6, 2015

Dear Community Meeting Participant,

I want to thank you for taking your valuable time a few days ago and joining us at Glades Central High School for my community outreach meeting. As I stated at the meeting, I am not coming in leading with solutions and best practices — I am coming in listening and learning.

My first several months on the job, I want to hear from teachers, administrators, parents, students, and community and business leaders. I want to learn what is working in our schools and where the opportunities are for improvements. Ultimately, the information and knowledge I acquire will serve as the foundation on which to build a strategic plan that will drive the district for the next five years.

Your thoughts and your experiences are important and I need to hear them. Thank you for sharing them with me at the community meeting. In the near future, you will be sent a survey where you can continue to share your thoughts with me on what you feel could improve in our schools.

My promise to you is that I will listen to what you have to say and I will base all of the decisions I make on what is best for all of our students.

Sincerely,

Dr. Robert Avossa     

• • •

Dear Dr. Avossa,

I appreciate you organizing the community meetings so Palm Beach County school administrators, teachers, students and parents could get to know you and express their vision of how to improve our schools. Your real-life story of growing up in an immigrant family, your struggles with learning English, and succeeding in school touched me. I hope it makes you sympathetic to the challenges many of our students face daily.

At the meeting I took part in a dynamic study group with participants unafraid to speak their minds, and I heard many good ideas by presenters from other groups. Hearing those diverse views allowed me to think more deeply about what I, as an educator in Palm Beach County for almost 20 years, would like to say to you as a newcomer and a new leader.

Many presenters advocated educational technology – more computers, laptops and tablets – with more access for students and teachers. As a member of the Project Smart program dedicated to training teachers to integrate technology into the classroom, I agree technology is useful in delivering curriculum in the 21st century but advise we do it wisely. Studies show that simply putting a laptop into a student’s hands doesn’t improve educational outcomes. Why? Because given the choice of using technology for work or play, most students naturally choose play. 

There’s no educational benefit in handing out free tablets or laptops to students. The devices are constantly being broken or stolen, and within a year or so they are obsolete. It would be better to provide enough computer labs in school, plus computers in the classroom, so teachers can use technology as part of their daily lesson plans. 

Through school partnerships, the business and technology community could make the latest technology available to families for purchase at low cost. If we can make $100 laptops for poor children in India, why not make them available to our own children? Cheap, accessible Wi-Fi even in rural areas like the Glades would help our students link with the global community. We also should  take advantage of the widespread use of smartphones and employ educational apps that will allow students to create content on their phones.

I hope you realize just putting a student in front of a computer doesn’t automatically result in the student learning. The computer, tablet or phone is a tool, and it can be used or misused. More resources put into training programs like Project Smart and professional development personnel, both certified teachers and aides, will help ensure students are properly monitored as they use the technology.

The state and testing companies are pushing for more online classes, test prep and testing, but they can have hidden costs. The state is reviewing FSA tests that were interrupted by denial-of-service attacks this past March to see whether they can be counted. A denial-of-service attack is relatively easy to mount, possibly by a disgruntled high school student using an online tutorial and $30 worth of software. That means online security is crucial and requires constant vigilance, expense and preparation.

At your meeting, a number of presenters called for more teacher recruitment, training and retention for the Glades. We must encourage our local young people to choose education.

A few years back, the school district sent recruiters to the Philippines. For those Filipino teachers, coming here was the fulfillment of a dream. But they faced a steep learning curve, with challenges they had never encountered. Most didn’t stay long. Money spent sending recruiters, and relocating and training these teachers — not all completely fluent in English, could have been spent finding and developing local young people interested in education. 

The key to teacher retention out here in the Glades is mentoring. I struggled at first when I first came here though I had taught 22 years, including 18 years in the Dominican Republic. Other dedicated professionals helped me make it through. John Holman, a local artist and long-time educator who passed last year; Ester Boyd-Mitchell; and Assistant Principal Eddie Rhodes provided support and encouragement that got me through difficult times.

We need to recognize that the Glades has a very different culture from the rest of Palm Beach County. Local residents need encouragement to study education and financial resources to help them finish school. Teachers from outside need mentoring and training to find out what works here and how to adapt the curriculum to our local students’ particular needs.

In your thank-you letter, Dr. Avossa, you assured us you’re not coming in leading with solutions and best practices, that you’re arriving to listen and learn. You promised at the end of the meeting to study suggestions from all the community meetings and to create an action plan based on recommendations from across the county. I’ll look forward to the priorities you set and the changes you promise to make. I also hope you follow through on your commitment to repeat your community tours quarterly to assess the progress of the plan and make necessary adjustments.

Sincerely,

Catherine Martinez

Catherine Shore Martinez is a National Board Certified teacher at Pahokee Middle Senior High School in Palm Beach County. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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