Describing her 2,000-square-mile district in Polk County, Fla., Superintendent Sherrie Nickell says the district is “larger than some states!” Located in the heart of central Florida, the county is known for pristine lakes and aromatic citrus groves that sit between the vacation hotspots of Tampa and Orlando. But in Polk County Public Schools, it’s all business, all the time.
“It takes work to maintain a school system, rather than a system of schools,” says Nickell. “Each community wants its schools to be special, and its students to have the very best in opportunity. We strive to strike a delicate balance between standardization, which aides efficiency, and customization, which aides effectiveness.”
That kind of balance isn’t easy in a district with 17 municipalities. But in the two years since she’s been the chief, Nickell has bridged physical and cultural gaps created by Polk’s challenging size. Calling it a minority/majority district, she says more than half of Polk’s students affiliate with traditional minority groups and speak 87 different languages. Since students live in both urban and very remote locations, bus rides can be short jaunts or last more than an hour. Collectively, students travel 53,000 miles a day. The district was also under federal court supervision for many years for desegregation purposes. A collection of magnet schools was created to bring nonminority students into predominantly minority neighborhoods. “These programs have been tremendously successful in accomplishing their intended purpose,” says Nickell. The district was honored recently for academic programming that Nickell and her staff created to unite the students learning across Polk County’s 177 school buildings, and elevate the overall achievement of the district’s diverse student population.
In December 2011, the College Board named Polk the winner of its 2011 Advanced Placement Equity and Excellence District of the Year award in the large district category. The district was recognized for simultaneously increasing its number of Advanced Placement (AP) classes, as well as the number of minority students taking the tests. From 2009 to 2011, Polk County Public Schools increased the number of students participating in AP classes from 3,365 to 4,802—a 19 percent increase—without experiencing a drop in the percentage of students who earned a score of 3 or better.
The percentage of students in the AP program who were considered traditionally underserved minority students—African-American, Hispanic/Latino, or American Indian/Alaska Native—rose from 28 to 31 percent in the same time period. And minority students scoring a 3 or higher rose from 21 to 24 percent. “The award was not expected,” says Nickell. “We have been so busy working that we were not even aware that the College Board was looking at our data and comparing us with other large districts. What an honor. And what a tribute to our hardworking teachers!”
During the 2005-2006 school year, Nickell—who was then the district’s associate superintendent for learning—and fellow administrators found data that showed many shortcomings at Polk. Among them was a lack of cohesive districtwide curriculum, no robust enrollment in AP classes, an unacceptably low high school graduation rate, and an achievement disparity between minority and nonminority students. “It was clear that we had to pursue a multipronged approach to our student achievement challenge,” says Nickell. Ann Tankson, Polk’s associate superintendent of school-based learning, recalls that Nickell knew that to witness success, administrators had to “radically improve” student learning. “Not expecting to be rewarded,” says Tankson, “she started with the end in mind: to improve equity, access and excellence for all students, and especially for that underserved population.”
Starting in 2006, Polk rolled out initiatives in stages that by 2011 had contributed to the College Board’s recent award. Among those initiatives was the pursuit of a three-year, $2.7 million grant from the College Board with which the district created a Department of Academic Rigor. The department focused on creating STEM academies (science, technology, engineering and math) in Polk’s middle schools to cultivate a strong pipeline to the district’s high school programs. The grant allowed the district to offer focused professional development for teachers and promoted student enrollment in the district’s increased AP course offerings. The district also focused on Head Start, kindergarten readiness and even STEM programs at the elementary level, Tankson adds.
“There was no magic bullet,” Nickell says of the district’s success, while crediting the efforts of Polk’s former superintendent, Gail McKinzie, as well as administrators and teachers who helped the district get to where it is today.
“Through this entire [AP] initiative, Dr. Nickell has always advocated the importance of academic rigor,” says Tankson. “She knows that, as a district, the focus cannot start with AP-level courses. She has worked very hard to put in initiatives along the way to help the district meet this goal and be eligible for such an honorable distinction.” Tankson adds that, for Nickell, the award was “a way to show that we can have it all … [and that] an increase in participation does not necessarily mean a decline in performance. She was so proud that just the opposite happened.”
Sherri B. Nickell
- Superintendent, Polk County (Fla.) Public Schools
- Age: 53
- Tenure: 2 years
- Salary: $180,000
- Staff and faculty: 12,032
- Schools: 117
- Students: 94,000
- Per-pupil expenditure: $6,132
- Web site: www.polk-fl.net
Jennifer Elise Chase is a contributing writer for District Administration.