Monday, December 29, 2014

Appreciation is due

With the amount of concern about high-stakes/high-frequency testing being expressed by community members at School Board meetings, you might be wondering if our local schools are in trouble. Rest assured: they are not.

Thanks to a December 16 School Board Workshop (agenda and presentation materials here), I have a better understanding of the state-mandated school testing process, and a much better appreciation for how well our schools are doing despite increasingly-burdensome state mandates.

Let’s begin with how well the schools are doing, because I fear we’ve not given those responsible the acknowledgement they deserve.

Earlier this month, the Florida Department of Education (DOE) released its annual high school report card, as required by state law (F.S. 1008.22 - Student assessment program for public schools and Rule 6A–1.09981 - Implementation of Florida’s System of School Improvement and Accountability).

The Collier County School District continued to beat state averages in terms of both the percent of A-graded schools (70% vs. 36%) and graduation rate (82.1% vs. 76.1%).

And they did this even as the number of top-rated high schools in Florida declined, at least in part reflecting the fact that the State raised the bar (school-grade scale criteria) in 2014, making it harder to get an “A” this year.

See the District’s December 18th press release for each high school’s grade and graduation rate.

According to the DOE report card, school grades communicate to the public how well a school is:
  1. performing relative to state standards,
  2. encouraging its students to participate and succeed in accelerated course offerings,
  3. graduating its students, and
  4. preparing its students for postsecondary education.
Even as we express our concerns over high-stakes/high-frequency testing, I think it’s important to recognize that many people worked many long hours to achieve these results. Given the recognition-in-passing by the Naples Daily News (see the buried mention in Saturday’s “Kicks&Kudos” editorial column), I would think any teachers or principals you know, as well as Superintendent Patton and School Board members, would appreciate your thanks for a job well-done:
  • Board Chair Kathleen Curatolo -
  • Board Vice-Chair Julie Sprague -
  • Board Member Erika Donalds -
  • Board Member Kelly Lichter -
  • Board Member Roy Terry -
  • Superintendent Kamela Patton -

In my next post, I’ll share what I learned about the state-mandated testing process.

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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Tonight's show will go on, but a question and an issue remain

Today's Naples Daily News editorial, "Sounding a good note on Collier student performances" (in print, "Chorus compromise beats battle in court") summarized the outcome of Tuesday's School Board meeting as it relates to tonight's Barron Collier High School (BCHS) choral concert at Moorings Presbyterian Church. Some excerpts:
There were welcomed conciliatory notes sounded ... to keep the Collier County school district out of a legal battle over using a church for student performances. The [School Board] addressed how to comply with its policies and stay within the parameters of a ruling in a court case in Utah....

The board majority [Curatolo, Sprague and Terry] made the right call in a 3-2 vote supporting the compromise presented by its attorney to enable a choral teacher or other music instructor to excuse a student from performing individual songs that he or she considers objectionable....

[Attorney] Fishbane's sensible solution diverges from the idea of allowing students to completely opt out of an entire performance. Instead, if a student or his/her parent objects to performing a religious song, the student is simply excused from the group for that song and rejoins it for pieces that are secular in nature. In that way, the student isn't singled out among peers for missing the entire performance. The location of the performance thereby also becomes secondary, because the student would be excused from the sacred song whether it is performed at a church, concert hall or in an auditorium.
So the short-run crisis has been averted. Attorney Fishbane and Superintendent Patton no doubt devoted many hours during the weeks since this firestorm erupted to find what the Naples Daily News called a "sensible solution" so tonight's BCHS concert can take place at Moorings Presbyterian Church as planned.

Presumably, this is what the choir members and their parents wanted.

I think we and they should applaud Mr. Fishbane and Dr. Patton for finding a responsible compromise. And we should applaud Ms. Curatolo, Ms. Sprague and Mr. Terry for supporting their recommendation.

However one question and one issue remain in my mind.

My question

According to BCHS Principal Caraker's October 29 letter to parents referred to in my previous post, concerns about BCHS Chorus performances being held at Moorings Presbyterian Church were raised by parents and the ACLU a year ago. In May, with the goal of supporting the choir program when the ACLU advised it was considering legal action, the District "did a careful review of both the propriety of the performance literature content as well as the venue issue." While allowing the May concert to go forward at the church, the District "concluded that a search for alternative venues providing a multi-site balance was appropriate moving forward."

The Barron Collier High School Combined Choir with Alumni
at the Moorings Presbyterian Church, Naples, FL

So why did BCHS find itself, in late October 2014, with an "unsanctioned event that did not comply with administrative procedures" that was scheduled "without [Principal Caraker's] knowledge?"

Did BCHS Choir Director Todd Peterson have the responsibility for finding alternative venues and ensuring that they were scheduled and approved according to the school's administrative procedures? And if so, why did he not do so, and how has or will this failure be dealt with?

My remaining issue

The crisis over the December BCHS Choral concert is behind us, but if the current performance schedule follows that of the past, the next concert will take place in March. This situation must not be allowed to happen again.

Mr. Fishbane made clear at Tuesday's School Board meeting that in his legal opinion, no current District policy or administrative procedure addresses the matter of cocurricular-activity venue or program content objectionable to a student or parent on the basis of their religious beliefs. He said the Board has the option to decide through ongoing discussion over the next few months if they want to address these issues through policy and suggested a possible way for them to do so.

This will be a difficult and contentious process, but surely ours is not the first School District to be faced with this issue. We don't have to reinvent the wheel. I suggest that Mr. Fishbane and staff identify best practices in this policy area for consideration by Dr. Patton and the Board as soon as possible. And I look forward to the resolution of this matter well before the next BCHS Choral concert, in a calm, inclusive, respectful manner that avoids litigation.

And again, Mr. Fishbane and Dr. Patton, thank you for your diligence and hard work to get this matter resolved so that tonight's show can go on. And thank you, Ms. Curatolo, Ms. Sprague and Mr. Terry, for your support.


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Thursday, December 4, 2014

Support the School District's compromise

When I started writing this post, my working title was "A matter of acoustics, or separation of church and state?"

Fortunately, I came across the Naples Daily News editorial "School administration on right course with BCHS choral compromise," and realized I was writing the wrong story. While I am a strong defender of the separation of church and state, the threatened lawsuit over this matter would be costly in terms of both time and money, and its outcome is by no means certain. So I support the current Barron Collier High School compromise, and I hope you will, too.

The underlying situation is that the High School Choir's Fall Concert was cancelled late last month with 24 hours notice. The parents of the choir members were informed of the cancellation in an October 29 letter from the school's principal, Tammy Caraker.

No wonder I started down the path I did. These are just some of the many Naples Daily News articles on the subject:
October 28 - ACLU threat led to canceled Barron Collier choral concert

October 30 - Barron choir students, alumni, parents join in unity outside school

November 11 - Barron Collier choir flap lands at the School Board's doorstep

November 20 - Majority of Barron choir students opt for an ‘F' instead of singing at Gulf Coast High
Principal Caraker's October 29 letter provided this background:
Since late 2013 especially, there have been concerns from parents and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) regarding whole choir performances, required as part of this co-curricular course (of which the four choir performances are part of the academic grade), being limited solely to the Moorings Presbyterian Church venue. Last May, we worked to support the choir program when the ACLU advised it was considering legal action to halt the May event from proceeding at the Moorings Presbyterian Church venue. As a part of our support, the District did a careful review of both the propriety of the performance literature content as well as the venue issue. Nevertheless, we concluded that a search for alternative venues providing a multi-site balance was appropriate moving forward.
According to a November 17 letter to the parents, a compromise is currently in place. Two of the school's four annual concerts will be held at a secular venue, and two will be held at a church venue. Principal Caraker wrote:
Our intent is to honor the multiple sensitivities and religious concerns of our participating students as well to maintain a pedagogically rich and diverse musical program and not risk losing the ability to use a church venue.
The Naples Daily News editorial pointed out that what's at stake is a lawsuit by the ACLU and subsequent involvement of the Liberty Counsel, "a national public interest law firm specializing in constitutional law, particularly free speech, religious freedom, and church-state matters" whose mission is "Restoring the Culture by Advancing Religious Freedom, the Sanctity of Human Life and the Family." See Libery Counsel's October 30 letter to Superintendent Patton offering "a pro bono defense of the Collier County Schools, should it do the right thing by the students and be challenged [by the ACLU] on this issue."

Four community members urged the Board to hold the concert at the church at last month's Board Organizational Meeting, when the matter wasn't even on the agenda. They, or others, are sure to be out in force at next Tuesday's meeting, when it is. See the Parents' Rock Facebook page here and Erika Donalds' page here.

Our School District's focus - both time and money - should be on education. Our children, our administrators, our School Board and our community don't need the distraction or expense of a major, high-profile lawsuit. Compromise is the right approach.

Please let our School Board and Superintendent know you agree by emailing all six of them as soon as possible:

  • Kathleen Curatolo -
  • Erika Donalds -
  • Kelly Lichter -
  • Julie Sprague -
  • Roy Terry -
  • Superintendent Kamela Patton -

And join me at the School Board meeting next Tuesday, December 9 at 5 PM (get directions). Let the Board hear your views in person, as I plan to do. This is a hot-button issue which is sure to draw a crowd.


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