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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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In Wayne's world, children come first
The superintendent draws on his own learning experiences.
By TOM MARSHALL, Times Staff Writer
Published August 5, 2007
County Administrator Gary Kuhl greets Superintendent Wayne Alexander (l-r) before the start of a joint meeting about the school's component of the Hernando County Comprehensive Plan.
[MAURICE RIVENBARK | Times]
BROOKSVILLE - He says all the things a new leader is supposed to say, about waiting and listening for six months before making any important changes.
But after one month as superintendent of Hernando County schools, Wayne Alexander has already learned one thing for sure: This job will not wait six months.
There's a districtwide rezoning to consider, a controversy over magnet school admissions and a looming state funding crisis. There are angry parents to calm, and a constant stream of e-mails that land with a ding! every few minutes on his office computer.
Already, like it or not, there are signs of an emerging leadership style: energetic and tough, self-effacing yet bold, unafraid to question sacred cows. Above all: Kids come first in Alexander's world.
All of those qualities were on display July 26 at his first School Board workshop.
"You all know more than I do, let's just put that on a plate," he told board members, who were complaining about a special-needs program that got moved from one school to another without their knowledge.
"We serve at the pleasure of the board," Alexander said. "If you need information to make decisions, we'll do our best to provide that."
Later, when a conversation on rezoning got tangled in the brambles of magnet school admissions policies, he didn't hesitate to wade into controversy.
If families and board members felt so strongly about relieving school overcrowding in Spring Hill, he said, why not move the magnet program at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics to a building in a less- crowded neighborhood?
"No one says the location of Challenger needs to be where it is," Alexander said. "Why can't that magnet be located in another location, if that's a priority?"
Later, as board members focused on the fairness of magnet admissions, he framed the issue in a way that encompassed every child in the 23,000-student district.
"Everyone should have the opportunity to display and demonstrate the specific skills that you have established magnet schools for, but not everyone will do that," Alexander said. "But being that we want to educate all of our children, it's very important that we find the hooks and opportunities to maximize kids' different aptitudes.
"Because we all have different aptitudes, and every child does," he continued. "Are we as a school district moving in that direction, to make sure that we don't miss some kids and what their special skills are?"
No one spoke for a moment, and then board member Jim Malcolm weighed in with a vote of support. "That's why we hired you," he said.
Shaking up the system
Alexander has particular sympathy for those overlooked, middle-of-the-road students -- the ones with plenty of potential who never quite find their groove.
Perhaps they have a mild learning disability, or a talent that doesn't get much exercise in today's test-heavy classrooms.
He relates to them every time he tees up for a golf shot and gets distracted by the radio playing in a nearby house: classic attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
"I'm so distractible at times. I have endless energy that has to be bridled and focused," Alexander said, reflecting on his own undiagnosed learning challenges. "There's no doubt Wayne would have had a hard time with No Child Left Behind."
He sees an opportunity in the reauthorization of that federal law and its focus on a single, high-stakes test. It's a chance to assess children using multiple, rigorous measures of their talents.
"I was an intelligent kid, but you had to tap into it," Alexander said. "Kids learn in a variety of ways, and paper-and-pencil is one particular way and strategy, but there are other ways. If you look beyond the one assessment we have, kids are going to flower."
And he's not afraid to shake up the system to improve it, starting on the first day of school. He plans to make a brief appearance in all 21 district schools that day if he can.
"And I will send the central office people out, because they don't get out enough," he added.
District communications will also improve, if Alexander has his way. He's already heard about newsletters and invitations that sometimes don't arrive at families' homes until after events have taken place, and by his lights that will have to change.
So will a district culture that sometimes pits one school against another, hoarding information and resources instead of sharing them, he said.
"You've got to boost one another up," Alexander said. "It's one large family; it's not a bunch of small families."
Investment pays off
That also goes for residents who don't have children in the schools right now, or don't see the wisdom of investing in education.
Resources may be tight in Hernando County and getting tighter, but Alexander has a message for those who would dramatically cut tax revenues to the fast-growing schools: Don't do it.
"The democratic process is that you pay for those before you, and you pay for those after you," he said.
He sees the results of that investment everywhere, hidden in plain sight.
"When they go to a doctor or they need a lawyer or plumber or electrician -- all those people are educated in our schools," Alexander said. "Your life is better because you're in an educated society."
Wait, there's more.
"I'll look at the rain pounding down on a highway and say to myself, 'It's amazing that's not flooding.' That's engineering. That's education that started with reading, writing and arithmetic."