- July 29, 2020
Last February, dozens of teachers arrived at Orange County Public Schools headquarters in downtown Orlando — posters in hand and frustration on their faces — and called for a return to education. In October, a resignation letter written by former OCPS teacher Maren Hicks ran in The Washington Post.
“Teachers are no longer given the autonomy to practice what endless amounts of research have proven are developmentally appropriate, dynamic ways of measuring student growth and skill mastery,” Hicks wrote.
But with elections over, parents and teachers — and OCPS as a whole — now have five new faces on the Orange County School Board.
Will this bring about the change residents and teachers are seeking?
Only three of the School Board’s members —District 3’s Linda Kobert, District 4’s Pam Gould and District 5’s Kat Gordon — are continuing in their roles. Joining them now are School Board Chair Teresa Jacobs, District 1’s Angie Gallo, District 2’s Johanna López, District 6’s Dr. Karen Castor Dentel and District 7’s Melissa Byrd. This also marks the first time the board was made up of all women.
López, a former Spanish teacher at Colonial High and OCPS teacher of the year in 2016, is also the board’s first Puerto Rican member. She decided to run after talking to students and teachers, the latter of whom were frustrated with their workloads.
“The teachers feel overwhelmed, and as a teacher I heard a lot of stories from colleagues feeling frustrated because of the load of work they were having,” López said. “I believe that was also an asset — to be a voice for the teachers. When you’re in the classroom for so many years and your friends and colleagues are teachers, I know the way they feel. I saw them crying sometimes, and they love what they’re doing, but it’s a lot of work.”
Gallo, a longtime PTA volunteer and former legislative chair for the Florida PTA the last four years, wanted to use her experience in policy and educational advocacy to help lead District 1. Byrd, an OCPS parent and a former teacher, decided it was time to bring her experience to the board. Castor Dentel is a former OCPS teacher and legislator — as well as daughter of Florida’s former education commissioner, Betty Castor — and Teresa Jacobs is the former Orange County mayor.
Each brings a fresh perspective to the table, and although they have many goals in common — improving communication, increasing parental and communal engagement and recruiting and retaining quality teachers — they know their first priority is to listen to the people they serve.
“One thing I heard over and over again when I was knocking on doors was these people feel like they’re not heard,” Byrd said. “That’s one of my big priorities, is to let my community know that I’m here for them and I work for them. … You can’t fix anything if you aren’t even listening or don’t know what’s going on.”
Although these five board members are new to their roles, they recognize the importance of quality teachers and know of the frustrations that educators are voicing — not only in OCPS but also nationwide.
In Hicks’ resignation letter, she wrote she was closing the curtain on her career with OCPS after just five years. The reason? “There is a massive and deeply concerning disconnect between the supposed aims of OCPS and their practices,” she wrote.
Hicks noted collaboration should occur between everyone involved in public education and that the board needs to listen. She also called for a return to education and lamented the district for treating students as “data points.”
“Across a variety of platforms, teachers and faculty members have implored Orange County School Board members specifically for the drastic changes our classrooms need,” Hicks wrote. “We speak at meetings, we write editorials for local papers, we sign petitions and propose legislative measures. Instead, we are met with closed doors and deaf ears.”
These are the same sentiments that were echoed by members of the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association at their February rally in downtown Orlando. There, teachers and parents called for a “clean house,” with some calling for board members who weren’t politically incentivized and who would advocate for students at both the district and state levels.
“I believe that the teacher recruitment and retention is also another challenge we have to work on, because teachers just leave the profession, and it’s very hard to find (quality) teachers,” López said. “When we do find teachers, it’s hard to retain them. Salary is something we have to work on. The load of testing is something that the parents and students are feeling very overwhelmed by — as are the teachers, because you have that responsibility on your shoulders. As a teacher, they evaluate you because of the student results. It’s unfair for teachers to have that type of evaluation and it’s unfair for our students to have so many tests.”
Gallo knows teacher retention is on the minds of many school districts nationwide, and she said the No. 1 issue she hears about from teachers is their cry for autonomy and better pay.
“They got into the profession because they want to make a difference,” Gallo said. “(And) I get it: These teachers work very hard (and) they want the ability to have teachable moments. …We do have a teacher shortage across Florida. Making sure we have highly qualified, happy teachers in classrooms is important because that’s directly linked to student success.”
López said she already is setting up meetings with teachers and hopes to have formal roundtables around her district with teachers and parents to get feedback from them.
“I believe that the community needs to validate the teaching profession more, as well,” López said. “It’s very important. …You can change children’s lives.”
At the OCCTA rally in February, many teachers voiced frustrations with time management as they juggle regular teaching hours, tutoring and prepping students for standardized testing. But even the district grapples with the state’s current accountability system, Gould said.
“That’s one of my big priorities, is to let my community know that I’m here for them and I work for them. …You can’t fix anything if you aren't even listening or don’t know what’s going on.” - Melissa Byrd
“On the time-management side, it’s so difficult because of the way the accountability system is structured,” Gould said. “It drives all of this benchmarking and tracking…instead of finding ways to utilize what teachers do every day to really keep us accountable. It’s a constant struggle and the teachers often think we’re responsible for that…but at the end of the day, everybody is stressing out because of the way the accountability system is structured.”
Gould agreed with teachers’ rallies for higher pay, adding that the state needs to fund education at a level that is not only competitive in a high-growth market but that also shows teachers they are valued.
“We value our educators as the economic-development investors that they are,” Gould said. “They are creating our workforce. On top of that they help shape the character of our children and really inspire kids to invent and be entrepreneurs.”
Although they stepped into their roles just before the holidays, the new board members are excited to join the current ones in 2019.
Community involvement and parental engagement are crucial keys to ensuring student success, as is school safety, they said.
“I believe if we increase the parental engagement, we can help the students more,” López said. “If we don’t have the parents engaging in the system, it’s kind of hard to work as a team. That’s something that would make a difference in all of the aspects I’ve mentioned before — safety, smart growth, teachers. … All of us want the students to be successful in life, to graduate and to contribute to our society.”
Byrd plans to focus on community involvement and being present and involved in her district. She hopes to create a community or advisory council of local leaders and stakeholders in education to focus on the communities outside and around the schools.
“The new members are very in touch with the heartbeat of the communities,” Byrd said. “We have more educators on the board now than we did previously. I think that that is going to definitely raise the bar as far as being in tune with what the teachers need.”
“We also have amazing members (who) already have experience in how to advocate for student rights,” López said. “We have teachers, parents, PTA representatives, a former mayor. … I think we have an amazing school board, and (people) are excited to have them.”
Gould noted that during their first board meeting, the new members were ready to dive into reviewing concerns the board has been facing and helping find improvements and solutions for them.
“When you have fresh perspectives, there’s sometimes answers you didn’t think about before or a new way to do things,” Gould said. “It’s new and exciting. Everybody brings new thoughts and perspectives, and that’s really cool.”
Teresa Jacobs declined multiple attempts seeking comment for this story.