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It’s graduation season, so five Citrus County public schools held graduation ceremonies this past week. Our graduates range from mentally or physically challenged students who may never live independently, to former dropouts who came back to school to earn their GED; to students who scored near perfect on the SAT exam or had straight A’s including college-level calculus and chemistry. Our public schools must meet the needs of all students, whose range of abilities and challenges is immense.
All students bring a sameness, a sense of accomplishment in the joy and pride of wearing their cap and gown, marching to “Pomp and Circumstance” and the excitement of “turning their tassel” — signifying they are now a high school graduate. Parents and family members clap, cheer, snap multiple photos and breathe a sigh of both relief and anticipation as each graduate starts a new path in their life, whether it be a job, college, military or a new outlook on themselves. They can all say, “I did it!”
We who represent public education embrace our diversity; our state legislators do not. They decreed through a list of ever-increasing and onerous graduation standards that a high school diploma must mean that the student is “college-ready” — period. They have gone so far as to eliminate the “special diploma” designation for our most challenged special education students, who will only receive a certificate of completion in the near future. I can tell you no one comes away from a CREST School graduation ceremony with dry eyes and without a real appreciation for the tremendous struggles these students, their teachers and their families have had to overcome. A diploma is a rite of passage for them as well and a statement that much was learned and accomplished.
We should shed a tear for those students who will not receive a regular diploma despite their attendance for the past 13 years. Some lacked a credit, some still had not passed the FCAT, some had not passed the new algebra end-of-course exam. Their 13 years of education amounts to basically ... nothing. Zero. A worthless piece of paper. All because of ever-increasing standards intended to increase enrollment in math and science majors in college, reduce costs for remediation of some students once they get to college or to compete with some students in another country halfway across the globe whose school systems and social structures are completely different than ours. Our schools must serve a vastly diverse population of students, unlike most other countries in the world. The mission of public education has been drastically altered by our Legislature and is leaving many students behind as a result.
Yet we can still rejoice in our students’ individual accomplishments. We are sending off this next group of graduates to UCLA, the University of Pennsylvania and all the Florida schools with more than $5 million in scholarships and a long list of accolades. Some have excelled at sports, others in the arts, sciences, writing, math, languages or culinary skills. Our academic team scored third in the state, and our students’ science fair projects have earned national and international recognition, while some students earned top scores for music performance in statewide competition. Former graduates have become a movie star, television writer and producer, university professors, research scientists, lawyers, computer engineers, business owners, teachers, doctors and nurses, plumbers, welders, politicians, decorated veterans and are among the Purple Heart recipients who gave their lives for our country. We have much to be proud of. Our students are unique, gifted, talented, driven and committed people whose character was developed in our public schools. Their teachers are inspiring, their curriculum challenging, and their accomplishments world class.
My message to our legislators: We do not need whips and chains to force our schools to teach our students — every teacher wants their students to do well. We do not need a one-size-fits-all — which actually fits very few — mandated curriculum and only one expectation for students — that they graduate from high school and go to college. That is not realistic. That is not equitable. That does a great disservice to students who vary from each other by their natural talents, desires, dreams, goals and individuality. While I totally agree that we need high standards and high expectations, they should be appropriate, realistic and obtainable in order to meet the needs of every student, not just some.
If we truly believe, as our Founding Fathers did, that every citizen is entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, then we need to provide multiple pathways to that happiness. Freedom to choose one’s destiny needs to be respected. Recognition of our essential differences should be accommodated rather than standardized. Enough of the endless mandated testing that robs students of instructional time and the ability to succeed at their own pace in their own area of interest, not just math or language arts. Bring back the concept that the vocational options now referred to as “career and technical,” are just as essential to society as the professional options; and let us create schools that recognize the value of both. Allow students to define their own path to success and provide flexibility and options that leads all students to their own destiny. Get over the ideology that all students aspire to be rocket scientists and what happens in Finland is more important that what happens in our own inner-city ghettos. We need to face our own image in the mirror — who are we as a people and what we believe about our own children’s opportunities — or lack there of. Can we allow them to be sorted by an educational standard that is biased to the top 25 percent? Are we creating a society leading to survival of the fittest and everyone else has little opportunity of their choosing? It is fast becoming a horse race between the haves and the have nots, and guess who is losing out.
As a retiring four-term school board member, witnessing my last wave of graduation exercises, I wish all of our graduates my most sincere congratulations and wishes for a bright and rewarding future. To our teachers, I echo the accolades awarded to you for your efforts and passion for teaching every student regardless of test scores, attitude, aptitude or challenges. You have made a significantly positive difference in the lives of these young people who are our future. Thank you.
Pat Deutschman is a four-term member of the Citrus County School Board.