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David E. Sawyer

It’s All a Matter of Choice to Him by JAY P. GOLDMAN

    As superintendent of a central Florida school district that includes the Kennedy Space Center, David Sawyer recently had an up-close adventure that reaffirmed what he’s long believed about the merits of applied learning.

This spring Sawyer judged a regional competition hosted by the space center that required high school students design robots to accomplish a task. To succeed, students had to apply lessons of math and physics and demonstrate effective communications as members of a team.

A week later, the superintendent of Brevard County, Fla., remained wide-eyed over the masterful accomplishments of these energized teen-agers. "It completely reaffirmed for me my belief that you learn better in a hands-on, real-world teaching environment," he says.

Sawyer, an industrial arts teacher by training, has pursued that view throughout his administration career. As an assistant superintendent in Fairfax County, Va., in the 1980s, he served as chief architect of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a regional magnet school. During a stint as superintendent in Clovis, Calif., he developed the proposal for a school scheduled to open in January that will provide high-calibre occupational studies.

Last fall, the Brevard district opened a junior-senior high school for motivated learners, who will be able to take Advanced Placement courses beginning in 10th grade and must fulfill community service for graduation. With no admissions requirements other than the student be on grade level academically, the school has proven to be wildly popular, drawing more than 400 applicants in year one for 200 7th-grade slots, which were picked by lottery.

"It’s a great feeling to walk through the halls of that school when faculty members tell me they feel like they’ve gone to heaven," Sawyer says.

He also is leading a campaign to build Florida’s first residential high school for the highly gifted in math and science in his district. He received a $25,000 planning grant and awaits funding from the state legislature for a detailed feasibility study.

But mindful that the narrow 1,300-square mile district serves the families of orange grove laborers, as well as those of scientists and engineers, Sawyer sees the need for a full range of academic options for the 66,000 students.

In fall 2000, Sawyer hopes to open five New Millennium Elementary Schools of Choice in buildings the district had vacated over years of falling enrollment. Each magnet school will have a specialty program.

"There’s a lot of public criticism that public schools are not doing what they need to be," says Sawyer. "Giving choices to families also leads to competition among existing schools."

Once special schools are created, existing schools seek to define their own uniqueness to retain their students, he notes. Brevard’s academic junior-senior high, which drew 18 percent of its first-year enrollment from students who had attended non-public elementary schools, is spurring self-improvement at the 11 high schools, which fear losing their best students. He witnessed the same competitive force in Fairfax County, where AP science enrollments increased sharply after the opening of the special math and science school.

The fact Sawyer has been able to push such an expansive agenda during his 5½ years as Brevard superintendent is remarkable in light of his tenuous support from the partisan county school board. Appointed to the post on a 3-2 vote, he has operated with a split board ever since. Then last November, one of his sharpest critics in the community gained a seat. The result, says one longtime community leader, is disheartening.

"This is one of the most difficult school boards I’ve ever seen," says Irene Burnett, retired executive director of a public social services agency and a 35-year resident of the area. "Three on the board find almost everything he does is wrong."

Sawyer concedes the tenor of the board-superintendent relationship has changed substantially. At the same time, he notes, he intends to keep on plugging away at academic reforms that will meet student needs and interests.

It won’t hurt his cause, as well, that the school board in a more civil and beneficent moment added a pair of golden handcuffs to his contract, annual $10,000 bonuses should he stay through December 2000.

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org