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Schools chief on mission to listen
Superintendent Wayne Alexander is out taking stock of what people want.
By Tom Marshall, Times Staff Writer
Published March 9, 2008
Hernando County school superintendent Wayne Alexander, seated at right in the blue shirt, listens to parent John Montagnino during one of his "town meetings" Wednesday evening at the Elks Lodge in Brooksville.
[Tom Marshall | Times]
Schools chief Wayne Alexander is focusing forward.
He's a long way from Connecticut.
Seven months after crossing the Mason-Dixon line to lead Hernando schools as superintendent, Wayne Alexander has begun venturing deep into the county's neighborhoods to gauge public opinion about the district.
He says the half-dozen town meetings will help him set priorities and decide how to restructure the 23,000-student system. The series continues Monday at 6 p.m. in the Withlacoochee Bicentennial Hall in Istachatta, with other talks scheduled for Thursday and on March 20 in Spring Hill.
So far, residents haven't been shy about taking him to task.
"Did I tell you I've only been here seven months?" he asked one crowd, as emotions started to rise. "Let's catch our breath for a second."
There has been praise for the schools as well as criticism. But he's learning it's hard to please everyone in a sprawling, diverse county.
Too much testing
At the Elks Lodge on Cortez Boulevard on Wednesday, parents railed about the stresses of helping young children prepare for the high-stakes Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Several complained that the schools are focusing too much on basic knowledge and turning out graduates without marketable skills.
"Give them all the skills they need," said parent John Montagnino. "Not just the skills to pass that crazy test."
He said globalization has left many families adrift, uncertain how their children will make a living.
"We make nothing," Montagnino added, referring to the offshoring of manufacturing jobs. "These jobs are obsolete."
Alexander said the district's plan to develop career academies in each high school, with a focus on training students for jobs in high-growth industries like health care and information technology, would help.
But he said parents need to help their children to develop realistic expectations about the hard work and training needed to build a solid career.
"They want to get right out of high school, get a two-year or four-year degree, make a lot of money and drive a fancy car," Alexander said. "That's the mentality of kids today."
Earlier in the week, a crowd of more than 60 people filed into the Lorenzo Hamilton Community Center in south Brooksville.
Many residents questioned the district's efforts to address the high school dropout rate, or the achievement gap between white and minority students.
"What do you do as far as collecting data from the kids who have already dropped out?" asked Paul Boston. "Do you reach out to ask what went wrong?
"I don't think we do," Alexander replied.
Helping kids succeed
Wayman Boggs criticized the role of the federal government, saying the No Child Left Behind Act had done little to reduce such problems. "I think we've seen very little progress in reducing the achievement gap," he said.
Several residents said the district should try harder to recruit minority teachers.
But others said parents and adults in the community need to refocus their efforts on helping children succeed through volunteering, homework help and more conversations with teachers and principals.
"Stop blaming the school system," said parent Jeffrey Jackson. "Make yourself involved."
For his part, the superintendent said it made little sense to focus on past disagreements with the schools.
"There's a tension in your community," Alexander said. "I have nothing to do with that. I have nothing to do with your past. I only have to do with your future."
Coping with distances
At the Ridge Manor Community Center, about 40 residents gathered to get a good look at the newsuperintendent.
There were more than a few complaints about the lack of schools in the easternmost end of the county and the challenges of putting young children on school buses at the crack of dawn.
"No one is going to come here because we have no schools," said one mother, referring to the lack of growth in the area.
Another parent suggested that the School Board build a school in Ridge Manor, on the theory that it would attract new residents.
"Unfortunately, your taxes don't work that way," Alexander told them. "As this area expands in population, the schools can be expanded."
He said the School Board has plans to build schools off Interstate 75 south of State Road 50 if development justifies it. And he later said the district might consider starting with a smaller school, rather than waiting to build schools as large as the 1,400- to 2,100-student models being constructed in other parts of the county.
Even without tangible promises of immediate relief, residents said they were gratified by the first visit in recent memory by a superintendent of schools.
"That's why we're tickled pink, because no one has come out here," one said.