An education choice advocate reflects on benefits of A+ Plan

Editor’s note: During this holiday season, redefinED is republishing our best articles of 2019 – those features and commentaries that deserve a second look. This article from Step Up For Students’ executive director for advocacy and civic engagement Catherine Durkin Robinson was another in our “Education Revolution” series marking the 20th anniversary of the far-reaching K-12 changes Gov. Jeb Bush launched in Florida. Robinson’s first-person commentary originally published Aug. 6.

Back in 1999, when Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and the Legislature decided to put the A+ Plan into effect — thereby increasing accountability for schools, rewarding them for improved outcomes and creating options for families – I was living in Boston and working on presidential visits and various campaigns for Young Democrats of America.

I knew my former home state was going through some changes, but I didn’t pay much attention.

That changed when my sons were born in 2000 and my husband and I decided, as much as we loved Boston, we would raise our children in the Tampa Bay area, surrounded by family and loved ones. At that point, education in Florida became my primary interest.

We returned to Florida and looked around. The academic landscape had changed from when I was a student in the ‘80s and a young teacher in the ‘90s.

In 1981, I rode a bus for 45 minutes (one way) from a middle class neighborhood in North Tampa to a struggling, low-income area in order to attend Young Junior High (now Young Middle Magnet) for seventh grade.

This was not my family’s choice.

Children of different ethnic backgrounds were bused to Young from all over Hillsborough County. Ours was a truly integrated school, filled with black, white and Hispanic students.

It was also a culture shock.

We all went from a neighborhood elementary school to this strange set of buildings in a part of town regarded as hostile and dangerous. Weird characters wandered on to our campus and routinely had to be escorted away. I remember feeling like the area around the school should have been made safe before bringing in children for schooling.

None of us felt a connection to the school or each other. We couldn’t put on plays or performances in the evening because it was too far a drive for almost everyone’s parents.

It didn’t seem to make much sense.

I returned to my neighborhood schools for the rest of junior high (eighth and ninth grade back then) and on to high school for 10th-12th. We all knew which schools were good and which were not, but only through word of mouth. Nothing official. And no accountability for the children who suffered through a substandard education.

After graduating from the University of South Florida, I taught at an alternative high school.

Our students were overwhelmingly poor, minority, and male.

They came to our school one of two ways. They were either arrested and the Department of Juvenile Justice sentenced them to our program, or they were expelled, and the school district sent them to us.

Students could learn at their own pace and in a setting that encouraged their thoughtful participation. In the morning they took core academic classes, leaving the afternoon open for a marine-based curriculum. Students learned how to operate a boat or become SCUBA and lifeguard certified.

This was the first time I saw disadvantaged youth thrive and do well. As teachers, we visited each student’s home and talked with their families. We learned about who they were and where they came from, rather than trying to help them simply based on their age, socioeconomic status, and alleged crime.

I was allowed to teach interesting social studies classes, such as Religions of the World and Politics and Government. Local field trips involved taking students to a synagogue, mosque, and church. We had lunch with Hare Krishnas in Ybor City. We also secured grants that funded field trips to Washington, D.C.

Our students saw a whole world outside the one in which they lived. I often wondered if at-risk youth might actually avoid arrest or expulsion if this type of learning environment were offered before it was almost too late.

Ours wasn’t a school of choice, since the students were assigned to it. But it showed me how developing a curriculum based on the needs and interests of the students in my classroom was a step in the right direction.

By the time we returned to Florida and started looking at schools, my kids had a lot more options than I ever did. Thanks to the A+ plan, scholarships to attend private schools were available, and magnet programs were created that expanded students’ knowledge and prepared them for high school and beyond. Advanced Placement classes and dual enrollment got them ready for college. Virtual classes allowed for flexible schedules and off-site learning activities.

When my children were ready for preschool, I also returned to the classroom and had more options as well.

Charters and magnet programs were able to do what busing never accomplished – probably because parents respond better when presented with choices, rather than something compulsory. I noticed this in other areas, too. Parents who bitterly complained about the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test never showed a resistance to AP testing. Both were rigorous and challenging, but only one was seen as a choice.

I am dismayed when my friends on the left act as if there haven’t been any improvements these last twenty years. There is still work to be done — too many children are still trapped in substandard learning environments.

But there is no denying the improvements that have benefited all of us. Maneuvering my children through the educational system was eye-opening, in more ways than one. Any parent who has options owes a debt of gratitude to Gov. Bush and the lawmakers who created this system of choice and accountability.