The Demand for Development

Change happens — certainly this is the mantra governing Duval County’s 160 public schools in the spring of 2013. We have a new administration, a young and engaging leader who is infusing the district with a refined agenda, and the leadership to meet not only his goals but those of Common Core, which is no longer out there in the distant future but here and now. Change happens, but change for its own sake is not always advised, and withdrawing funding from the Schultz Center, as Superintendent Nikolai Vitti proposed, is certainly a case in point.

Teachers are a breed apart — by choice, we spend long hours with the young. We reinforce potty-training, phonics and the multiplication tables. We chaperone middle school while introducing biology and algebra. We (like parents) worry about weekend parties and teenage driving because, by high school, between Shakespeare and global economics, we know we are “letting go”; our “product” is off the assembly line. Here, too, is where the teaching profession differs from all others — our “product” lives and breathes and will inherit the world we leave behind. No pressure.

Professional development is not a choice for today’s classroom teacher — it is a “have to,” a “must have” so that we remain current in the real-world demands placed on our students. Technology, yes, but beyond that, we need to be at the top of our game with content, skills and desired outcomes. These requirements point to continuing development in the same way a surgeon must be familiar with new procedures or a builder with new materials.

Here in Jacksonville, classroom teachers have a central hub of professional development, a place designed, built and administered for us — the Schultz Center for Teaching and Leadership. Certainly there is a history of achievement in the years since Fred Schultz, W.C. Gentry and others saw their vision take form. Certainly countless thousands of Duval County teachers and administrators have completed courses that enhance classrooms, elevate best practices, and endorse or renew professional certificates. At the same time, careers have advanced, and the county has reached district goals, among them a declining dropout rate and having all high schools graded at or above a C. Are there other contributing factors to this “first time” success? Certainly, but the partnership of Duval County Public Schools with the Schultz Center cannot be down-played as we master the benchmarks of “excellence in education.” These are institutional or corporate successes, but what about drilling down into the data? What, for instance, does an individual teacher realize? What will be lost if Schultz is no longer funded?

I am an individual — a high school English teacher, who came back to Jacksonville in 2005, after a nearly 20-year teaching hiatus. The Schultz was up and running, and what a great idea, I thought (and still do): a place where teachers from far-slung corners of Duval County can come together, learn from advanced curriculum and, more important, from each other. “Job-embedded” professional development (PD) is best, and that is exactly what I have always gotten at the Schultz: job-embedded — relevant to what I need in a successful classroom — and because I am away from the school building for the professional development, I am focused, in the moment, and able to collaborate. Another personal reality is that I do not always attend the PD as scheduled; when there’s a conflict between Schultz and my 10th-grade students, the outcome is a no-brainer — I am in my classroom with my kids.

Best practice and collaboration leads individuals to grow and strengthen in career requirements, knowledge and application. Among the stellar programs offered Duval teachers through the Schultz is First Coast Scholars. A selection of seminars that envelops content across the curriculum, First Coast Scholars (FCS) partners with local universities to offer graduate level courses taught by university professors. Socratic in nature, these seminars over the years have provided not only professional development for the participants, but nearly 100 shareable units uploaded and accessible via OnCourse.

Seminars are after-hours each week, and there is no remuneration beyond a sense of being valued as a learner. Participants in the FCS seminars can, if they desire, have their units reviewed and juried for a chance to attend a one-week symposium in the summer at Princeton University. Talk about professional development! Thanks to the local Princeton Alumni Association, no expense of the trip is borne by Duval County, but the rewards are reaped by the district daily — in participant classrooms and through the use of units developed for all students, K-12. From a chemistry teacher at Stanton to a reading teacher at Westside Elementary, from a young math teacher at Butler Middle to a seasoned veteran in a self-contained autistic spectrum class, each of these, and so many others, have benefitted from First Coast Scholars.

From a purely fiscal standpoint, freeing the Schultz contract amount in the name of “a reading and math coach at every school site” is, on paper, an excellent, classroom-driven idea, but there are conflicting realities. Are we well served to add full-time academic coaches to our nationally ranked magnet schools, which, though the high schools rake in all the awards, are present in the county at elementary, middle and high school levels? Indeed, do our traditionally well-performing neighborhood schools require “every day” coaching? At the elementary level, where coaches seem to exist in abundance, “we’re tripping over each other” is an oft-heard comment.

Student-centered, kid-friendly, child-centric — we need to make these concepts true to the point of being redundant. Teachers are conduits and, yes, the Schultz Center, from inception to present, is a place where professionals gather to refill — to share, learn, discuss and shape those best practices that produce life-long learners: successful human beings who step from our classrooms to real-world achievement.

Yes, change happens. We need to be aware of the change process now sweeping DCPS and be willing to embrace changes that are necessary for student-centered, best practice. When it comes to funding the Schultz Center, the evidence is clear: This is professional development that meets the criteria! The Schultz is student (teacher) centered, and contributes daily to best practice in Duval County classrooms. o

Copley is a high school English teacher, First Coast Scholar, Princeton Scholar and level 4 mentor in the Duval County Public Schools.