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What keeps us up at night

By Staff | Jun 17, 2022

The School District of Lee County’s new administrative chief outlined his “entry plan” this week, committing to more community input, a good workplace environment and a strong focus on learning and educational excellence.

While these may seem like obvious goals, School Superintendent Christopher Bernier delivered them with the kind of passion that makes rote recitation reality, and we wish him every success in a district that has its share of challenges, both pandemic driven and historical.

We thank Dr. Bernier for an entry plan that targets much of what ails us — and many other districts as well. We wish him and his team every success as he “listens, learns and plans” so as to foster college- and career-ready young adults while reaching out to parents and the community at large.

“I will continue to say it out loud. As we create and commit to equitable instructional processes that meet the academic, social and emotional needs of every learner in our care, I really want to focus on the last three words — ‘in our care.’ We are in ‘loco parentis’ when we have somebody else’s child, but that doesn’t prevent us, nor should it stop us, from communicating with parents and guardians to ensure that as we’re developing young people both academically, socially and emotionally that we are working in concert with their values and their beliefs,” he said.

“This is not a listening tour,” Dr. Bernier said of his plan to garner input from parents and the community, whose perspectives he knows might vary from that of the school board and district staff. “It is the beginning of a community engagement process and commitment that I will be out with the community asking critical questions of what is working, what isn’t working and what keeps you up at night.”

Let up help kick off the input process by outlining two things that keep us wide awake.

The first is student achievement at the core level –what we old timers used to call reading, writing and ‘rithmatic.

Without proficiency in the skills that provide the foundation for all learning that follows, students struggle.

Every day.

Every subject.

Every year.

Trained educators know this.

Parents feel it.

But it is the children who live it.

Consider:

In March, the district shared concerning news. The shortened school year as the pandemic opened followed by a non-traditional school year that included distance learning, followed by the current school year fraught with absenteeism, staff shortages and the need to play academic catchup, caught up to our kids with the potential for serious long-term effects.

With key assessment tests then still pending, 56 percent of second graders — kids who never got the benefit of a “normal” school year — were performing at a kindergarten level in reading basics.

Teachers were forced to start over with fourth-quarter kindergarten phonics with these struggling little guys because, as Teaching and Learning Director Dr. Bethany Quisenberry succinctly put it, “You need phonics to be able to read. What we are seeing with first and second grade students is they are still unable to read.”

The state test scores have since come in.

They are abysmal. One could, without exaggeration, call them the beastie under the educational box springs.

Fewer than half of the third graders enrolled in Lee public schools passed the state test for reading this year.

Only 48 percent received a score of 3 or higher — with a 3 being the passing point of the five-level scoring system — in the spring English Language Arts assessment.

That’s a whopping 10-point drop over 2019.

Even scarier?

Only 20 percent of School District of Lee County students scored at a Level 4 or 5 with approximately 79 percent or so not yet proficient in reading and so not likely to succeed in their course work next year without additional intervention.

According to the state rating system, 29 percent showed a reading level that is “inadequate” and will begin fourth grade in need of substantial support to succeed. Twenty-three percent scored “below satisfactory” and will begin fourth grade likely in need support. Twenty-seven percent, scoring at a satisfactory level, will begin their next school year still in need of some support to move on to fourth-grade level courses.

So yes, an emphasis on student achievement, especially in the basics.

The second thing that keeps us up at night?

The politicalization of education here in Lee County.

It’s not new.

It started, in fact, with the move to single-member districts, which eliminated the right of every Lee County voter to cast a ballot for every seat on the School Board of Lee County.

This has fostered — we will be kind — a factions-fraught policy-setting board as it takes far fewer voters to win a particular district seat, save for the two still at-large.

It has moved now to a state-driven, politically rail-roaded referendum on the General Election ballot to make the superintendent of schools — the top administrative post — an elected, i.e., partisan position, all-but-unheard-of in large districts such as we have here in Lee.

We’ll not delve deep today on the initiative Lee County voters will decide on Nov. 8.

But we will say it is a diversion from the task at hand — to not only catch back up on the 10-point drop in benchmark reading scores, but to put our educational emphasis on classroom learning.

Which is where it should be.

Let that be something to sleep on.

— Breeze editorial

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