Polk Public Schools Focusing on Growth in New Year
Analyzing a recent survey and using its results to help create a strategic plan for the Polk County School District is a major focus this year for Polk County Public Schools. But there’s so much more, said Superintendent Frederick Heid.
“A major priority for 2022 is that our School District will finish creating a new strategic plan to help us better serve students and operate more efficiently as an educational institution,” said Heid, who joined the district as superintendent in June 2021, succeeding Jacqueline Byrd, who retired. At the time he said one of his top priorities was gathering input from the community to establish a strategic plan.
Last year, community members were invited to participate in a survey to identify the top characteristics they think all Polk County public school graduates should possess. The results of the Portrait of a Graduate survey will be released in early 2022 to “help us create a shared vision for our community’s youth,” Heid said.
In addition, Heid announced that the district will provide every student with an internet-accessible device this year. “Polk County Public Schools was recently awarded a $28 million federal grant, which along with other available funding will help us make this 1:1 access a reality.”
Students will be taught how to care for the devices at school and home.
In addition, Heid said, the district will “explore ways to improve internet service in our county, particularly in communities where there’s limited or non-existent connectivity.”
Covid changed many things in the world of education in 2020 and 2021, from the way teachers present information to learning while wearing masks. But it didn’t change the growth occurring in Polk County, especially in the northeast, often referred to as Four Corners – where Polk, Orange, Osceola and Lake counties meet.
That residential growth is a challenge and an opportunity, Heid said. “We opened three new schools this year alone, and we are planning more school sites in fast-developing areas of our district.”
In August 2021, the district opened:
- Davenport High School, which has career academies that focus on critical topics like hospitality, and modeling and simulation – all targeted areas for industries seeking to move or expand in Polk County.
- Bella Citta Elementary in Davenport.
- Willow Oak Elementary in Mulberry.
Bella Citta was built using only impact fees, while Davenport and Willow Oak relied on impact fees and revenue from the half-cent sales tax. “We are very fortunate that voters renewed the half-cent sales tax in 2018, which helps provide essential funding for critical building and capacity needs,” Heid said.
Students at those schools all started the 2021-2022 school year using a district-provided laptop or iPad.
Challenges & Opportunities
Heid puts the pandemic in perspective easily: “Life during the pandemic remains an ongoing challenge for everyone. We’ve seen how new variants — like Delta and Omicron – can quickly change how this illness spreads in our community. That’s why we must remain vigilant in using layers of mitigation strategies and continue to work closely with the Florida Department of Health in Polk County to monitor local health conditions.”
Some students and their family members are suffering during this unprecedented time in our history, and it’s not just from physical ailments like the virus.
“Academics will always be our core focus, but we must never lose sight of the social, emotional and physical needs of our students,” Heid said. “We are exploring new and innovative ways to support students. For instance, our new telehealth program provides students with immediate access to a licensed medical professional or mental health clinician right from home or school. These telehealth services are offered at no charge for all PCPS families at this time.”
In November 2021, the district partnered with Hazel Health, a telehealth provider for K-12 schools. Using the service, students and their family members can talk to a licensed medical professional or mental health clinician from their home or school.
Have a stomach ache? Feeling depressed or anxious? At school, a school nurse or designated staff uses an iPad to help them talk directly with a medical professional over live video.
Heid said finding people to fill positions is critical.
“There is a nationwide shortage of teachers, bus drivers and other school-related employees,” he said. “We respect these hardworking individuals and are focusing our efforts on ways to recruit and retain them. Saying thank you is not enough — we must keep our salaries and benefits competitive, as well as find ways to improve working conditions. Taking care of our employees is vital to the well-being of our district and its future.”
Days before school started in 2021, the district had more than 225 openings for teachers, and more than 200 more for paraeducators, bus drivers and others, according to The Ledger. On Jan. 7, 2022, it had 210 openings under the category listed as instructional and 254 listed under non-instructional.
For the 2020-21 school year, teachers started at $45,172 if they had a bachelor’s degree; $47,353 for those with a master’s; and $48,392 for those with a doctorate.