School board member speaks out

A school board member responded to my current piece in the Times Union, this is her note and my responce unedited. I’ll let you be the judge.

Dear Mr. Guerrieri:

I am writing to you in response to your letter to the editor regarding the members of the Duval County School Board’s visit to Jean Ribault High School. I found your letter to be not only factually inaccurate but also potentially detrimental to the Jean Ribault High School family. Your letter feed into many stereotypes regarding the Ribault High community and the public perception that there are not diverse high performing students in the school. I must admit that I was surprised when I saw your letter because you had not struck me as someone who would form superficial, snap judgments about any school or its students.

Your letter starts off by saying that we did not meet with a truly representative sample of students at Ribault High. I found that assessment to be particularly odd in light of the fact that we meet with a group of students remarkably similar to the group of students we meet at your school, Ed White, in the spring of last school year. Just as was done at Ed White and Terry Parker High School, we allowed the school based administrator and his faculty to select the students that represented a true cross section of the school and that was the group of students we met with. Your letter would suggest that Ribault High does not have a cross section of diverse high achieving students but rather a monolith of students who all need remediation.

The next point you raise is this view that the visit to Ribault High School is the only visit by board members to schools. As a member of the board for almost eight years, the mother of four children who have all matriculated in the Duval County Public Schools during my tenure on the board, the wife of a teacher at Ribault High School, and the daughter of a former long time Duval County Public School teacher, I have always been engaged and active in our district’s schools and have spent time working in and with them every week of my tenure on the board and prior to. My experience with the schools is remarkably similar to the level of involvement by each member of the Duval County School Board.

Whether I have tutored students one-on-one or in small groups for ACT/SAT test to prepare them to obtain concordant scores or achieve satisfactory admission scores for college, or cooked meals for entire members of the football team, or meet with groups of teachers, parents, and administrators in schools to address concerns, advised parents/guardians of curricular implications for their children, or talked with various faith based and civic organizations, I worked to ensure that my decisions as a board member were truly representative of the community that elected me.

My vision when initially running for office was to help instill the pride and high quality instruction back in my alma mater, Jean Ribault High School, and to prepare young people all over this district to match their infinite potential with steller academic performance. As I leave the board, some of my dreams as a member have been actualized and others have much work yet to be done. Nevertheless, I know that through grace my time was well spent.

As I return back to my private life as a wife, mother, attorney, educator, and servant oriented civic citizen, I will continue to work to ensure that the Duval County Public School District addresses the needs of all of its students. I am hopeful that teachers like you will continue to call attention to the areas where we need to improve; however, I would hope that your message comes from a positive place and is based on factually accurate information.

Brenda Priestly Jackson, Chairman
Member District IV
Duval County School Board

Thanks for your note, though I can’t help but think the long list of ccs was meant to intimidate me some and I’ll let you know it worked, I am duly intimidated and not looking forward to Monday at all. Though I hope you understand that agree with my individual points or not my mission is to make things better for children and teachers.

You are absolutely right though. I was saying you didn’t meet a cross representation of the children at Ribault high school, but if you are as involved as you say, then you know that. I would also say you didn’t meet an accurate representation of students at my school last year and I would bet Terry Parker as well. Furthermore I don’t think visiting three schools in the last year is something to be proud of.

The average students at these schools is marginally interested in their education and many feel over whelmed or are having their joy for learning robbed from them. Unrealistic curriculum requirements (algebra II really) that have seen the skills, trades and arts all but eliminated are a chief cause of this. My school recently lost an award winning art teacher who dedicated 15 years to Ed White all to be replaced by a more than likely out-of-field first year reading teacher. Kids today have been pushed through many without consequences for behavior or mastering the material it takes to be successful. We have destroyed rigor and eroded discipline. We have put them all in a one-size fits all curriculum that every year sees more and more fall through the cracks ill prepared for life.

If you add destroying teacher morale and giving teachers all the responsibility and blame but none of the authority to educate children then this is the legacy that you and many members of the current school board have left behind. In the last ten years we have seen our school system transform from one growing and filled with potential to one that is contracting and serves only some of the districts children; leavening the rest unprepared for either a post secondary education or a job in the workforce.

Also I think it’s unfortunate that you think I was talking negatively about Ribault high school because I wasn’t. I have friends that work there and they think that after years of mismanagement it is finally heading in the right direction, I wish them and the students there nothing but success. I thought that was clear in the piece. Though I readily admit I think one of the biggest problems we have as a district, is we have been mismanaged by politicians, who have looked at the school board as a stepping-stone up or down and casual observers filled with hubris who think to themselves, hey I can fix that. Mrs. Priestly-Jackson I also remind you that you don’t just represent the administration at 1701 Prudential Drive but you represent the cities, teachers, parents, children and stakeholders as well.

Finally I don’t question your heart or that of any members of the school board. I question the school boards depth and think many of them are out of it and I feel it would be better that if school board members weren’t serious about education and three school visits in a year, not meeting with teachers and walking lock step with the superintendent would seem to indicate they weren’t; then they stepped aside. The cities children and teachers can’t handle much more.

Chris Guerrieri

Here is a link to my blog with the original unedited piece.

My First Memory of Our Superintendant: More of the Same

Winter break 2007: Returning to school refreshed, with my sleeves rolled up and ready to concentrate on the business of education, it was almost a full five minutes before I received my first disappointment of the new year. I realized that despite the fact it was a new year, and with a new superintendent, all we would be receiving would be more of the same.

Now, it wasn’t little Johnny cursing me out or little Suzie refusing to do her work which got me down – as a teacher I am used to that; besides, I know it’s my job and my responsibility to get them to follow directions and learn. No, what got me down came from much higher up; what got me down came from those who were supposed to be helping me out, making my job easier; what brought me down didn’t come from my students, it came from my superintendent and my school board. And I was only one of many who were feeling it.

After Ed Pratt-Dannals replaced Stephen Wise at the bargain basement price of $275,000 (plus our national reputation) I am sure many people – parents, teachers and interested parties alike – thought things would be different; that the way things were done would change. No longer would the school system be led from an ivory tower where mandates were handed down and subordinates without input were expected to carry them out.

We thought we were ushering in a new era where we would all work together as a team…(that’s where parents, teachers and administrators alike would come together to make our school system one in which we could all be proud). The first few days after the change, we were all filled with optimism.

And then – right off the bat – the new superintendent (seemingly in an effort to prove things were going to be different) came to us and sought the counsel of all the school board employees. He came to us and asked us to help him solve one of the most pressing problems our school system had, (wait for it – *dramatic pause* – wait for it:) What Our E-Mail Address Should Be. You see, and no longer represented the direction in which we wanted to head … (*sound of balloon deflating and spinning out of control around a room*) so much for our optimism.

Our administration must have decided, ‘Hey let’s get that one out of the way first, and then we can come back to the issues of discipline spiraling out of control and schools that are failing. That’s right – before we tackle the problems of teacher morale, violence, truancy and dropouts, let’s make sure we get the e-mail address right’.

Though I find it just as likely they thought, ‘Hey, for the most part, teachers have no idea how to handle failing schools, violence in the classroom or truancy, but since we want to give the appearance of us being a team, let’s throw them a softball that they may be able to help with – besides, if we give them two choices, (A or B) about something nobody really cares about, how can they mess it up?’

Either way, an e-mail was sent out asking us to choose between and, and we were asked to vote for which one we liked better. The address that received the most votes would then become the official one. (Perhaps they also thought that a byproduct of finally getting the right e-mail address that represented us would be that our FCAT scores would go up and the dropout rates would go down – two of the many, many problems teachers were not asked to help solve).
So, teachers voted… and even though this (in the scheme of things, when compared to dwindling supplies, dropping test scores, being threatened in the halls by thugs masquerading as students and so many other things) was basically a trivial matter, many of us were happy to do so. You see, for the last few years, so many things have been (and are still being) forced onto us and we are required to implement them without giving any input; America’s Choice, Access Points, and ninth graders being forced to declare a major are a few of the more glaring boondoggles that the county has declared the next great fix – only to be later discarded. Even though it was the equivalent of being asked if we wanted two or three ice cubes in our water, it was actually nice to have our opinions considered.

The votes came in and as a group, we decided on We knew that with that burning issue out of the way, we would next be asked to help tackle the other problems facing our school system – and if you have forgotten some of them, they are: no discipline; failing schools; plummeting teacher morale; violence, truancy and dropouts. These are problems that teachers, parents and other interested parties initially thought may have been just a bit more pressing, but our opinions were not requested.

Except that wasn’t what happened; instead of going with what the rank-and-file voted on (and mind you, this was after we were asked to vote, and we were told what we voted for was going to be the new address) we got a letter informing us they decided to forego our decision and head in a different direction; that the choice we made did not adequately reflect what we wanted to project; and that one of the reasons they decided to go with a different address from the one we had chosen was that it was going to be free. I guess after paying the previous superintendent’s severance we couldn’t afford the $9.00 the domain name we chose would have cost.
That’s right – after being asked how many ice cubes we wanted, they decided to not even give us a drink. We couldn’t even get that right. Read that again, parents; the school board doesn’t believe the people who are entrusted to teach your children are capable of helping to pick an e-mail address.

I started to wonder why they even asked us in the first place, but it became a little too mind-numbing; and, to be honest, I didn’t really care, because when compared to so many other things, what our e-mail address is doesn’t really matter. However, what I do care about is the disconnect the administration has with its staff; the belief that these people (out of the classroom, in many instances for years) have – that they feel they know what’s best, especially when many of us in the trenches feel like they have no idea what is going on.

I also started to wonder if they only payed ‘lip service’ to teachers and our opinions – or who else they might be doing it to. Maybe parents should be asking this same question.

Now, if you are wondering which one I voted for: I didn’t. I was too busy getting little Johnny to take his seat and little Suzie to do her work, though I anxiously await the next time the administration has a pressing question (such as which number two pencil to use, or how many chicken nuggets should come with lunch); you know…something they might feel I am qualified to help with. Reply Forward