Will Polk County improve the preparation of its high school students for bachelor’s degree-level STEM careers the way that Bay County has? It all depends on having outstanding individuals who are willing to make change happen.

Polk County science teacher Casey Dodge addresses members of the Polk County School Board during Tuesday’s roundtable discussion of high school math and science. From the video recording of the meeting.

During my presentation to Polk County School Board members on Tuesday, I featured the success that Bay County schools have experienced in improving their students’ preparation for bachelor’s degree-level STEM careers and some of the individuals I’ve had the privilege to work with there. From 2015-16 to 2018-19, high school physics enrollment in the district grew by more than a factor of five.

I talked about Bay School Board member Ginger Littleton, who first invited me to meetings with district and school officials in 2015. Working with Ginger, who doubles as the Director of the STEM Institute at FSU’s Panama City campus, has been one of the greatest experiences and honors of my career.

I shared about Rutherford High School physics and math teacher (and math department head) Rachel Morris, who makes almost a mystical connection with her students. Rachel has been the lead teacher for FSU-PC’s Nuclear Medicine and Science Camp during the summers of 2018 and 2019 so I’ve gotten to watch the remarkable way that students respond to her from close range. In addition, Rachel taught a lesson on the quark model on the final day of this year’s nuclear camp and I can testify that she knows more about that subject than I do.

I told the story of Mosley High School’s MAPPS counselors Sharon Hofer and Laura Evans, who had the courage to decide that their high school needed to up its rigor game and who invited me to help with that task by meeting with parents. The success they had in improving the preparation of Mosley students in upper level math and science was beyond anything I thought possible.

I met some individuals at the Polk School Board meeting on Tuesday who seem to be just as extraordinary as the Bay County educators with whom I’ve spent so much time during the last four years.

The first who comes to mind is Casey Dodge, who has been teaching at Polk County’s Tenoroc High School during the last several years. Unfortunately for Tenoroc’s students, Casey will be moving to the district’s Kathleen High School this fall (which is great news for Kathleen’s students). She talked with the five Polk School Board members who attended the meeting while they were working on a task I had given them – making light bulbs light with batteries and aluminum foil. Later in the meeting, she delivered impassioned comments about the state of science instruction in Polk County and how it could be improved.

Casey was not alone among members of the audience in sharing her passion so eloquently with the board members. Other teachers and parents in the audience argued more strongly than I ever could for making changes to better prepare Polk’s students for careers in engineering, the physical sciences and the computing and mathematical sciences.

Casey attended high school at Tallahassee’s Lincoln High, where she was a student of my co-presenter on Tuesday, Adam LaMee. Adam is now the Physics Teacher-in-Residence at UCF and President of the Florida Chapter of the American Association of Physics Teachers. Adam is a frequent co-conspirator of mine in high school physics advocacy. His take-down on WUSF radio’s “Florida Matters” of the then-CEO of the Florida Virtual School during a discussion of virtual schooling is the stuff of which legends are made. His argument to the Polk board on Tuesday that students and parents should be required to opt out of a biology-chemistry-physics high school science progression was powerful and made a tremendous impression on the board and audience members.

The representatives of the local newspaper, the Lakeland Ledger, were terrific. Reporter Kimberly Moore should win an award for using the phrase “quantum transition” in the lede of the story about the meeting. Photographer Pierre Ducharme brought the remarkable atmosphere of the meeting to the Ledger’s readers through the images the paper posted.

Finally, the five board members who attended – Lori Cunningham, Sarah Fortney, Lisa Miller, Billy Townsend and board chair Lynn Wilson – surprised me with their engagement and enthusiasm. Lori’s undergraduate education was in electrical engineering, so perhaps I should have anticipated her passionate support of the idea of improving the preparation of Polk’s students for bachelor’s degree-level STEM careers.

I was not surprised a bit by Sarah Fortney’s excitement about the subject. She recently retired from a career teaching middle school science in Polk County, and the issues I raised seem to be among the reasons she sought election to the school board in the first place.

Lisa Miller, who had a career in public relations before switching to classroom teaching, is featured in one of the memorable photos that Pierre Ducharme took holding up a poster designed by the FAMU-FSU College of Education to educate students and parents about taking calculus, chemistry and physics in high school. After that photo was taken, Lisa found a way to hang the poster in front of the board’s dais for the rest of the meeting so that nobody in the room could forget why we were all there.

Board Chair Lynn Wilson surprised me with his excitement about the subject of the meeting, and the photo of him wearing a pair of FSU Physics Department diffraction glasses is another enduring image from the meeting posted on the Ledger web site. I’m still impressed with how he gracefully made sure that everyone in the room – both board and audience members – had their say. The meeting ran forty minutes over the scheduled two hours, but he hung in there and kept things orderly until the end.

And of course there is Billy Townsend, who started it all by inviting Adam and myself to Tuesday’s roundtable meeting and whose infectious enthusiasm for improving the opportunities for Polk County’s young people was the overarching theme of the day. And yes, Billy is a math person (you’ll have to watch the recording of the meeting to see why I say that). I’ll point out for the record that he never would have been admitted to Amherst College if he wasn’t quite good at math.

If there is going to be positive change in Polk County, it will have to be led by these individuals and others who will join them along the journey – just as change was led by courageous and determined individuals in Bay County.

Polk County School Board member Lisa Miller commenting at Tuesday’s roundtable meeting. She is sitting at the seat usually occupied by member Sara Beth Reynolds, who did not attend. From the video recording of the meeting.

Below are the first two slides from my power point for the Polk County meeting, along with the slides about Bay County.

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1 Response to Will Polk County improve the preparation of its high school students for bachelor’s degree-level STEM careers the way that Bay County has? It all depends on having outstanding individuals who are willing to make change happen.

  1. Pingback: Thank you, Teacher Voice Ryan Haczynski, for reminding me that I have the privilege of working with terrific students and teachers | Bridge to Tomorrow

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