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“We can’t do anything about academics until we get this behavior under control”: School board members discuss their vision for the district

School Board Member Diyonne McGraw discusses her vision for the district

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – At the January 17 Alachua County School Board meeting, each member of the board had an opportunity to talk about their vision for the school district. Chair Tina Certain said she put “Strategic Visioning” on the agenda to give the new board an opportunity to discuss “how we’re going to go forward.”

Certain said she wanted to work on a “zero-based budget,” looking for areas where they could make cuts but also making investments into areas that are important to the board, such as improving student performance. She said they needed to form a team to be ready for a comprehensive rezoning in August of 2024. Since Interim Superintendent Shane Andrew has been in that position for almost a year, the board will need to make a decision on when to proceed with a search for a new superintendent. Certain also asked Andrew to bring back information about progress on a new LGBTQ+ Guide at the next school board meeting. 

McGraw: “People are leaving; they are leaving because of the behavior”

Member Diyonne McGraw encouraged the other board members to visit classrooms because “Of course academic is first, but we can’t do anything about these academics until we get this behavior under control.” She said behavior intervention needs to happen quickly because “in the next 60-90 days, we have an opportunity for someone to bring money to the table and help us… You have to have a middle ground, which I call a Transitional School to Success. How you change negative behavior is you have to create a positive environment with consequences; it’s not punishment.”

McGraw said discipline needs to be addressed in the next 60 to 90 days because “People are leaving; they are leaving because of the behavior… Strategically, we need to workshop this sometime in February.” 

McGraw also said Citizens Field is important, as well as a plan for “all students to have equitable access to all our programs,” specifically dual enrollment. She also mentioned a “marketing plan; we must re-brand ourselves as Alachua County Public Schools… We have to say, ‘Hey! Look at Alachua County Public Schools. This is a great place to work and come,’ but we got to deal with that behavior before we get to anything else… We’re losing staff, we’re losing administrators, we got to do something about the behavior, and I have a plan to share with my colleagues.”

Rockwell: District policies need to be consistent across schools

Member Sarah Rockwell said that in addition to the topics that had already been mentioned, she thought they needed to do something before August 2023 to make use of “a brand new facility that is sitting at approximately half capacity when we have neighboring schools that are extremely overcrowded, students eating lunch at 9:30 in the morning,” and that they needed to do spot rezoning for New Terwillegar “of neighborhoods that we are absolutely certain – as certain as we can be – will stay at that school.” 

Her other priority is having district-wide operating procedures in writing, both to capture things that are working at one school and can be applied to other schools and for consistency across the district.

Abbitt: “Those kids need to have someone in the classroom that knows how to teach reading.”

Member Kay Abbitt said the district needs to work on its Strategic Plan: “I think the district needs to know where it hopes to be in five years, and we need to be working toward that goal and not just kind of knee-jerk reaction to problems as they come up.” She said that includes rezoning and evaluating the properties owned by the district, as well as a plan for recruiting and retaining teachers.

But she said her biggest concern is “these kids that are sitting in schools, struggling… There are kids sitting in classrooms who are not getting the instruction they need.” She said she was in four classrooms the previous week, and only one had “a good teacher, and the other three… through no fault of their own, they had no education background; they were put in a classroom… If this has been happening all year, and this is where we are, there’s a problem… Those kids need to have someone in the classroom that knows how to teach reading.”

Abbitt said she had requested a list of all the teacher specialists and their assignments on December 6, and she had not received it yet. “In a wonderful world where we have certified teachers in our classrooms, those teacher specialists are such a bonus… but right now, we have kids sitting in a classroom with people who have no idea how to teach reading.” She emphasized that none of this is from a “lack of trying, but you’ve got to have staff, and right now… we’re a half-year into this, and these kids have been sitting with subs the whole year, and that doesn’t sit well with me.”

She said teacher specialists may not want to go back into the classroom, but it doesn’t need to be permanent. Abbitt added that she didn’t see any behavior problems in the classrooms she visited, but “there were instructional problems.”

“If something were to happen at [Buchholz], I don’t want to feel like, as a board, we didn’t step in.” – Member Kay Abbitt

Abbitt also said the district needs to look at safety, particularly at Buchholz, which has many entrances. “If something were to happen at that school, I don’t want to feel like, as a board, we didn’t step in. So I think we need to look at every school.”

Abbitt also emphasized transportation: “We’ve got to pay these people a little bit better, maybe some things have to change in transportation… because we can’t have kids not getting to school and missing reading instruction.”

McNealy: “What are we going to do differently to keep our staff intact?”

Member Leanetta McNealy said she was pleased with the increase in graduation rates in the district, particularly at Newberry High School. Regarding academic issues, she said they need to focus on the lowest quartile in all schools, not just the SI (School Improvement) schools. She said, “We must come together” because they are still talking about the same issues in January that they were talking about in August. “We know the assignment in this very room; it’s how do we get there?” She said all board members are inundated by emails from teachers and parents.

McNealy said she’d spoken with a teacher the previous day who was leaving her (unnamed) school in June, but she said six other teachers had left since August. “I couldn’t believe it; it just had not registered in my mind until she said, ‘And I’ll be gone in June.’ What are we going to do differently to keep our staff intact?”

She spoke about rezoning and said it needed to be done for the whole district, despite parents who were probably “finding people now who will be representing your neighborhoods and communities, but this is something this board, who you have elected, will step up and handle it, because that’s what’s needed. Period.”

Regarding attendance, McNealy said, “I know we’re in trouble with that. Across the board.” She said parents are dropping children off late, and they’re missing breakfast. There had been discussion earlier about whether to keep breakfast open late as opposed to incentivizing students to be on time by keeping fixed meal times, and the board members did not make any decisions but seemed to be divided on the best policy. McNealy said they would need to have snacks in the classrooms if children missed breakfast because they “cannot function” when they’re hungry.

McNealy pointed to all the school district administrators in the room, saying that if the things they’re doing “have not succeeded and they have not worked, I’m here to tell you, cut it out… I’m sorry to be so blunt, but that’s how I feel. That’s what rubs me the wrong way when I have to go sit down with the superintendent and talk to him, because he’s just as kind-hearted as he can be, but I can be so different when I’m… looking at him face-to-face… I’m going to pinpoint what the problem is.”

She said, “We’d better get back to some old things that work. Some old things that we are using is not working.” She said she wanted to see changes before the end of the year and before next August.

Certain: District must focus on priorities of educating and transporting children

Certain said she will be using workshops for dialogue and problem-solving, but recent workshops have run six to seven hours, and she promised shorter agendas in the future. She said she’d heard from teachers with valid certifications who had applied for jobs with the district and had not been placed. Regarding transportation, she said she had asked staff for a recommendation on how to improve the issues, and she said the district must focus on the things they’re legally required to do, which are to educate children K-12 and transport children who live more than two miles away from school or who have a hazardous path to walk. 

Regarding discipline, Certain said workshopping may not be the best way to approach that. She suggested that McGraw meet with Superintendent Andrew and staff and bring back a plan that the board, as a whole, can discuss. 

Certain also asked the superintendent to schedule a meeting with the Hawthorne community and asked him to explore ways to use the district’s mental health funding allocation, perhaps by contracting with outside agencies. 

  • Stop spending money on lawyers fighting the Governor. How much did you waste fighting the mask, don’t say gay law (😂😂) go back to talking with the parents have open monthly meetings with them the them on board its their responsibility to make sure their children behave in school

    • “Don’t say gay” law is totally being characterized wrongly – …intentionally. Our schools, yourself, our administrators and teachers DO NOT LOOK at LBGT students in a negative light. The Governor’s set of regulations dealt with ensuring that NO ONE except the child’s parents/guardian were able to discuss LBGT issues with a child up to grade 3. From that grade on – it had to be “age appropriate.” Simple not homophobic!

  • Discipline? What discipline? And NOTHING has improved since uppity and nasty mouthed Leanetta has been on the board.

  • Bring back corporal punishment since there are such out-of-control discipline problems. If they don’t want to get paddled, they should be expelled for the rest of the academic year. No hearings with angry mama – just expelled, period.

    • This type of punishment worked when students cared about being shamed and their butts warmed up at the same time. Then having to explain it to mom/dad or both came some real punishment consequences. Mr. Peabody, these kids today may look like kids from 20-30 years back – but whacking them with paddles will only bring out the worst in their character AND the parent’s desire to help out the situation. Writing a 700–800-word paper about why it is important NOT to knock kids down a flight of steps. An expository or explicatory paper of why you should NOT smack police officers is tough punishment for these hooligans. If they don’t do the paper – they stay in that room by themselves the entire day. They should be searched before going in the room for phones, matches, smokes, weapons. After several days of non-compliance. Expel them. However, smacking these kids just doesn’t work anymore.

      • I think they would pretend they can’t read or write, or they would pretend they are incapable of understanding what they are being asked to do. Due to the current state of affairs, many of them wouldn’t have to try too hard to pretend as far as reading/writing. Other than that, it’s not a bad idea.

      • If it’s done right it does but it has to start at home and the government needs to keep its nose out of it

  • In my 30 years as an educator in this district, Mrs McGraw has the dubious honor of being the most ill-behaved parent with whom I dealt. For her to talk of the woes of student behavior surpasses hypocrisy. It is just disgusting.

  • If we’re expecting the schools to teach kids how to read because their parents haven’t done so already at home then we’re really losing the ballgame before the first pitch ⚾️ 📖

  • Feral children are a direct result of failed social agenda policies over the last 70 years, snowballing to what we see today. It started when prayer was thrown out of publik skools. Then more policies and lax personal / family lifestyles added in. We can’t even count of school police officers to maintain order, they’ll get fired.

  • A mother and father at home (nuclear family) is the best environment for children to live and love and grow. You have welfare children from homes without a mother and father getting dumped into the public school system as daycare. If you are a woman, you should pick a mate that is the best
    Out there, not have a child with a crazy convict bum with no job. When you have a child, it’s your personal responsibility to house, feed, & educate them, not the public school system…crazy woke policy should not be making taboo normal…there should be no talk of LGBQXYZ or gender dysphoria or sex education until the children reach puberty.

  • Staff are leaving because there is no SUPPORT with the behaviors. They are told to just deal with it. No support from their Principals, Assistant Principals, or the District. There are so many things I wish I hadn’t seen in these classrooms. It’s one thing to sit and say what needs to happen, but it’s another thing to reach out and actually help.

  • Looks like the SBAC has woke up to the issues that have been plaguing the district for some time now.

    Just a reminder for board members – these issues you’ve mentioned didn’t start this year. They’ve been around and some of you have been on the board the whole time. These problems are a byproduct of certain political ideologies. Members have chosen to deflect the real blame from where it lies onto some within the public purview.

    The employees in the district don’t feel they have the support at the district level. Abbitt made note that, “a good teacher, and the other three…,through no fault of their own, they had no education background; they were put in a classroom…” That’s what happens when people don’t want to do the jobs they were hired to do, when the employees’ perception of support from their leadership is practically non-existent. Someone else has to pick up the slack or in this particular instance, do the job intended to be done by another employee. Abbitt said the district needs to stop having “knee-jerk” reactions. I’ll go a bit further, they need to stop having circle-jerks that do nothing to give support to the students and staff within the school district but instead give the board members & certain members of the community that warm, fuzzy feeling.

    McNealy is going to “pinpoint” the problem with the superintendent but won’t be as “blunt” with her constituents. We all know where that leads – just more of the same; shifting the blame to someone or something that has no control to correct the cause. You want kids to get to school on time? Get their parents involved.

    Don’t blame me, I’m not their parents and if I were, they wouldn’t be having discipline issues in school.

    • It’s a systemic discipline problem – not a ‘behavior’ problem. Someone actually qualified (not someone selected for woke check-boxes) needs to overhaul the system with a goal of making discipline much more ‘assertive’ than it has been in this broken super-beta-male woke school system. Do they still have internal suspension, or is that too ‘stigmatizing’ nowadays? It sounds like every school needs a “jail” classroom where the bad kids are sent for a week at a time for misbehaving. If that doesn’t work, suspension at home and ultimately expulsion. A school is like a garden. You may need to pull some weeds so the good plants can grow better and stronger. That’s the solution.

  • Put paddling back into the schools. You’ll get behavior back under control. We had it when I was in school back in the 70’s and 80’s. We did not have the behavior problems back then like you do now!!!’ The kids know they will not be disciplined for their actions!!!!!

  • Just teach reading, writing, & arithmetic…we’ve had schools since Plato and now this woke BS has ruined an institution. Personal responsibility is the key.

  • The state of public schools breaks my heart. I hope school choice, where the money follows the child, will become the model for Florida. Step Up for Students scholarships are a great start, but it’s not enough. When parents can choose the schools, and the public schools are not considered too big to fail, perhaps we’ll see some hope and help. We are losing generations of children. The money flows in and problems flow out. It’s such a shame. I hurt for the children that are stuck in a broken system, ill-equipped to provide for themselves or their families one day.

    • One other thought…when we as a nation decided that it was okay – noble, even – to embrace abortion as a solution to a crisis pregnancy, we conveyed just how little children really mean to us. Why would they believe that this country cares about them, when the smallest and most vulnerable of all are discarded? We have become the very worst sort of hypocrites. May God have mercy.

  • These school board members sound uneducated themselves and have no common sense. LGBTQ + guides have no business in public schools. Focus on reading, writing and arithmetic and focus on teachers that don’t have an agenda.

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