My efforts to improve the preparation of Florida’s high school students for college STEM majors have been an important part of my life during the last decade. But if I hadn’t met Ginger Littleton in 2015, I would have given up on that work a few years ago.
I was reflecting on that last week as Ginger publicly announced that she would be leaving the Bay County School Board at the end of 2019 (She is continuing in her role as Director of the STEM Institute at FSU’s Panama City campus). Ginger and I have collaborated for four years on a variety of projects that have brought me in contact with the county’s students, parents, teachers and administrators. During that time, I’ve developed a deep respect and affection for Ginger – and I’ve learned a tremendous amount about her community. Ginger is a pillar of that community as well as a dedicated servant, and she will continue to be both of those even after she leaves the school board in a few months.
I told a gathering at FSU’s Panama City campus in August that working with Ginger has been one of the highest honors of my career, and that is true. But Ginger has also rejuvenated me, bringing a passion for improving the state I serve as a professor back to the surface at a time when it seemed it might be submerged permanently.
Ginger invited me to Panama City for the first time in August of 2015 to meet with several members of the Bay District Schools staff. She was aware of my hobby of writing for my blog and for newspaper op-ed pages using statistics about course enrollments provided by the Florida Department of Education. My statistics indicated that Bay County was the worst non-rural district in Florida for the rate at which high school students enrolled in physics, a subject which is important in preparing for college majors in engineering, the physical sciences, computer science, and life and health sciences. Ginger was involved with an organization called Alignment Bay County that was working to get students on all tracks – including those bound for four-year colleges and those who would be looking for financially sustainable work after high school – ready for the 21st century economy. She saw the district’s shortcomings in courses like chemistry, physics and calculus as a problem that needed solving, and she saw my visit with district staff as a means to raise their awareness about the problem.
There was one extraordinary moment in that August 2015 meeting with district staff that I will never forget. In nearly all settings where I am talking about education, I end up in the role of bad cop. I talk about the necessity of students taking courses in high school that are often more rigorous than either students or parents find comfortable. I challenge colleagues and leaders in my own institution and in government. I concentrate on being civil, but conversations with me about what Florida’s high school students should be doing are rarely completely pleasant. But in one bright flash of a moment (and I will not share the specific language Ginger used) I realized that on this particular August day I was not the bad cop – the bad cop was the school board member sitting next to me. Instead, I was the good cop, even though I had bad news to deliver. I actually stopped breathing for a few seconds, and I realized that one of my hands was covering my mouth. It took me a few moments to recover my composure and begin my presentation.
A few months later, in October 2015, Ginger set up a meeting for me with guidance counselors, assistant principals and academic coordinators from the district’s high schools. I gave essentially the same presentation to that group. After that meeting, two Mosley High School guidance counselors, Sharon Hofer and Laura Evans, asked me to speak to parents at the school during an evening meeting – something that never would have occurred to me. But those Mosley parent meetings were ridiculously successful. During the 2015-16 school year at that 1,600-student school, only six students were taking physics, 151 were taking chemistry and only 32 were taking calculus. During the Fall 2018 semester (before Hurricane Michael struck), there were 173 taking physics, 319 taking chemistry and 68 taking calculus. Thanks to Sharon and Laura – and Ginger – I became a believer in parent outreach and the doors of opportunity to pursue careers in engineering, the physical sciences and other fields opened for Mosley students.
Ginger arranged for the first Bay County Future Physicists of Florida induction ceremony for middle school students to be held at FSU’s Panama City campus in November of 2015. Two hundred students were inducted, and hundreds more family members crammed the St. Joe Community Foundation Hall where the ceremony was held. Future Physicists of Florida induction ceremonies were also held there in 2016 and 2017. After a year’s hiatus in 2018 due to Hurricane Michael, the 2019 induction ceremony will be held on November 18, 2019.
Ginger arranged for me to meet with Rachel Morris and Sean O’Donnell, two of the district’s high school physics teachers, in December of 2015. I asked Rachel and Sean what they needed, and as a result we met during a total of twelve Wednesdays over the next two summers (six hours per session) to learn electricity and magnetism. Nancy Browne, another of the district’s physics teachers, joined us for those sessions. During the first summer, I learned that these teachers lacked access to the high quality teaching lab equipment necessary to give students the best chance to learn physics with understanding. Over the next three years, FSU President John Thrasher provided more than $50,000 to address those needs at four of the district’s high schools.
The number of high school students taking physics in Bay County’s public high schools rose from 107 in the Fall of 2015 to 565 in the Fall of 2018 before Hurricane Michael. In doing so, Bay County rose from being the worst non-rural district in the state for physics to being ranked fifth in the state for physics enrollment rate. But the numbers only mean so much, and here is the bottom line as far as I’m concerned: In my own FSU physics classroom, Bay County students are now the strongest group from North Florida.
My Future Physicists of Florida effort had attracted a significant amount of funding in 2012, but until Ginger invited me to Bay County and adopted the effort for her district, I had been shooting blanks. (Humility check for me: I started working with the Monroe County School District at the same time I started with Bay, but Monroe didn’t start making progress until I stopped going there and got out of science supervisor Melissa Alsobrooks’s way.)
The effort in Bay County wasn’t all sweetness and light. Not everybody was pleased with our effort to coax more students (and their parents) to take physics, chemistry and calculus and we even attracted some angry opposition. I was so tense about one trip to Panama City that I printed out a copy of the King James Version of the 23rd Psalm and laid it on the passenger seat of my car for the drive: Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. But even though she was an elected official, Ginger didn’t waiver in her determination to pursue our work together.
I’m now a year and a half into a collaboration with district staff and teachers in Orange County’s Public Schools, one of the nation’s largest school districts and the Florida home of the Calculus Project, a program to recruit students from all backgrounds – but particularly disadvantaged backgrounds – into the STEM pipeline by having them take Algebra 1 in 7th grade and providing intensive support. But I wouldn’t even have answered their initial call if Ginger hadn’t kept me in the game. She will be present in everything I accomplish going forward.