To the editor:
During the many years that I served on the Lee County School Board, I have met and talked with hundreds of our citizens. Two topics that regularly arise are (1) problems with student transportation, especially the very long bus rides endured by thousands of students, and (2) the need for greater community involvement and parent participation in the education system. To understand how the transportation problems arose, it's necessary to understand a little bit about the history of school choice. School choice was instituted in Lee County in 1974 to comply with the 1954 United States Supreme Court ruling which declared racial segregation to be unconstitutional.
Despite many extra millions of dollars spent on busing over the years, proportional diversity has not been achieved in Lee County. For example, over 40 percent of Lee County elementary schools currently have student bodies exceeding 60 percent minority children. Even more surprising is the fact that several schools which are located in integrated neighborhoods, such as Villas Elementary and Bonita Springs Elementary, have student bodies which are 71 percent and 86 percent minority, respectively. In other words, if those schools and many others situated in integrated neighborhoods had just been left alone to serve the children in the surrounding community, they would be far more integrated than they currently are and for far less money. Moreover, school choice was not only intended to increase diversity, which it has failed to do in any meaningful way, it was also intended to eliminate differences in academic performance among students from different backgrounds; that didn't happen, either. So, the current school choice program has become nothing more than an unwieldy, expensive means of shipping children from one place to another for no cogent reason other than to appear to be accomplishing something that is not being accomplished. This brings us to the second topic of concern, namely, community and parental involvement which is key to better learning.
For many years I have been an advocate of bringing schools back to our neighborhoods in order to build a stronger bond with community members, especially parents. Under our current "choice program," children from the same neighborhood attend many different schools, which is why a myriad of school buses stop in the same places to pick up children, where one school bus would normally suffice. These conditions interfere with the creation of cohesive communities and discourage many parents from engaging in meaningful involvement in their children's schools. A far more common sense approach would be to have students attend schools within a reasonable distance from their homes and make the school more user friendly for those parents who would like to get involved. Another advantage of neighborhood schools is that we could consider opening our playgrounds after school and also explore utilizing our school buildings for community activities and encourage a sense of involvement in our schools by the whole community. I have also suggested over the past few years that we seriously explore the possibility of decentralizing the operations of the school system by creating sub-districts, contiguous with our five school board districts, with the intent of bringing teachers, administrators and elected officials closer to the communities they serve. As an example, school board members would each have a small office at a school within their respective districts to facilitate meetings with parents and local community leaders, instead of the system that we now have which centralizes decision making and decreases the ability of citizens to easily interact with the people who serve them.
The School Board has a unique opportunity to make significant changes in the way that schools operate by partnering with local communities and increasing parent involvement. By making schools more accessible and welcoming to the entire community, we will create a much stronger bond with the families of the children we educate which makes far more sense than shipping children all over the school district for the sake of appearances.
School Board candidate