A decorated Leon County teacher recently argued on Facebook that incumbent Superintendent of Schools Jackie Pons should be reelected because Leon is the best school district in the state.
The campaign for Leon County School Superintendent should have been about equity and excellence, especially in STEM subjects. Instead it’s turned into a spectacle of mendacity, meanness and mediocrity.
But it’s worth taking a look at the issues of equity and STEM excellence, because they demonstrate why the self-satisfied claim that Leon has the best school district in the state – shared by many residents, teachers and administrators – is not even close to being correct. And to examine those issues, we can compare Leon to the school district it should aspire to emulate, Seminole County.
Seminole County is just north of Orlando, and has a long tradition of excellence in math and science education. But last week, another aspect of this high-achieving school district was brought to light by Emma Brown of the Washington Post: Seminole County is a national leader in pursuing socioeconomic integration.
To see what this means, take a look at the plot below that compares Seminole and Leon Counties. Seminole has a free and reduced-price lunch (FRL) eligibility rate (from 2015-16) of 49%, lower than the Florida statewide rate but higher than Leon’s (44%). Yet while two of Leon’s five main high schools have FRL rates above 90% with all the others below 30%, Seminole County has managed to engineer a situation in which none of its big high schools has an FRL rate above 52%.
Does Seminole have to lower its expectations for students because of this effort to promote equity at the high school level? The answer is an emphatic “no”. While both Leon and Seminole have strong chemistry and precalculus enrollment rates (see below), Seminole’s physics and calculus enrollment rates are far ahead of those in Leon. Teachers and school policies drive Seminole’s physics enrollment rate. And the remarkable calculus enrollment rate in Seminole is at least partly the result of a district-wide high school graduation requirement that every student take a math course every year, no matter what the student’s level is. As a result, most students who take Algebra 1 in middle school end up taking at least one calculus course in high school.
Nothing like Seminole’s math policy could ever be enacted in Leon County, where the words “science” and “math” were absent from the campaign, even though preserving arts education came up often.
As wide as the STEM gap is between Seminole and Leon, it’s the socioeconomic polarization in Leon’s schools that shouts the loudest for attention. But as long as Leon’s parents, teachers and educational leaders think everything is just fine the way it is, nothing will be done to address the district’s shortcomings.