The Missionary

Shawn Beightol's education crusade is seeking believers

The Missionary
Jacqueline Carini
Shawn Beightol's home: a 40-foot wooden sailboat anchored off the 79th Street Causeway
This past October, television cameramen gathered at the gates of Miami Edison Senior High, a Zone school in hard-pressed Little Haiti. The news crews trained their lenses on Shawn Beightol, a slender, bearded man waving a piece of paper and wiping sweat from his brow. A veteran chemistry teacher at Michael Krop Senior High School in North Miami-Dade, Beightol was agitating for increased education funding, including a more substantive pay raise for teachers; he was also campaigning to become the next leader of the county's teachers' union. (The election will take place next month.) The contract then under negotiation — ratified two months later — fell short, he said.

"This is the kind of school that is going to get hurt," Beightol shouted as he motioned to the hulking, almost windowless building behind him.

Beightol had been rattling cages for weeks. A former youth minister who doesn't shy away from spouting four-letter words or firing off impassioned political e-mails at three in the morning, the 41-year-old educator had been gathering teachers in the back room of a Chili's in Doral to organize protests over the painfully slow salary negotiations. He'd urged colleagues to work no more than required by contract until the district guaranteed across-the-board raises and put starting teachers' pay on par with Monroe County — $40,000 — effective immediately, instead of three years down the line.

Miami Edison Senior High, one of the lowest-performing schools in the state
Jacqueline Carini
Miami Edison Senior High, one of the lowest-performing schools in the state
Math teacher Hector Lopez during a lull in his Miami Edison classroom
Jacqueline Carini
Math teacher Hector Lopez during a lull in his Miami Edison classroom

On October 5, he'd circulated a list of school district employees who earn more than $100,000 (there are 225, including twelve who make more than $165,000) in an e-mail that likely reached thousands of fellow teachers. He hammered on that message at Edison, pointing to a chart showing that the number of administrators making more than $100,000 had increased at more than one-and-a-half times the rate of teachers and students during the past five years. That's money that could be going toward better teaching at suffering schools like Edison, Beightol said. "It's racism. It's classism."

For about two weeks this past fall, district administrators had rewarded Beightol's efforts by transferring the award-winning teacher to desk duty at a bus depot. They pulled the plug on his e-mail account.

Schools superintendent Rudy Crew was calling for a $40,000 starting salary — to be phased in over three years — as part of his plan to retain more teachers and throw lifelines to sinking inner-city schools like Edison. Under Crew, teachers at the Zone schools receive twenty percent more pay for twenty percent more work and, in exchange, are expected to raise significantly their students' scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), the standardized measure by which the state's schools are judged. If scores don't increase, pink slips follow.

Standing in front of Edison, one of the state's lowest-performing schools, Beightol for a moment looked like some kind of sidewalk prophet. He motioned insistently with his hands and warned that teacher turnover would continue unabated unless there were a cultural sea change. Education needed to be valued, educators respected. It's not simply a matter of salaries, he said, but also resources and support — trusting teachers to teach instead of constantly saddling them with the FCAT and more overpaid administrators. It began with the new contract.

The diesel-pickup-driving single father, who makes his home on a sailboat off 79th Street, had become a strident, if somewhat quixotic, symbol of deep dissatisfaction with schools. One newspaper profile labeled Beightol "The Insurgent." He was hailed as a hero by some, denounced as a grandstanding wannabe messiah by others. His pickup suffered three unexplained flat tires in two months and, at one point, a screwdriver showed up in the air-conditioning condenser.

With 50,000 employees, the lumbering, bureaucratic megalith that is Miami-Dade's school system is South Florida's largest employer and the state's second largest. Boasting a budget ($6.1 billion) that dwarfs the individual gross domestic products of 50 world nations, it is the region's largest buyer of goods and services, accounting for $3.2 billion in annual purchases from local businesses and $2.3 billion in annual income for local households.

The district — the fourth largest in the nation — has largely remained mired in low graduation rates, low test scores, administrative corruption, and deteriorating infrastructure. And so the recent ratification of a three-year contract for the county's 21,000 teachers was heralded as a major breakthrough. It won overwhelming approval from the United Teachers of Dade (UTD), the county's teachers' union.

Florida ranks dead last in education funding when compared against income, and 32nd when it comes to teacher salaries, behind states like Tennessee and South Carolina. Voters' tax gag reflex and expanding homestead exemptions have made raising school dollars here an effort not unlike drawing blood from a stone. Declining student rolls will cost Florida school districts $203 million in state money this year.

If respect for educators is measured by their compensation, teachers have been steadily losing society's esteem for decades. The gap between the average teacher's pay and salaries for other workers with four years of college is the widest it's been in 60 years, according to the National Education Association. Turnover is a problem across the country. A 2003 study found that a third of all public school teachers are in transition — starting, retiring, or just quitting — in any given year. Half of all new teachers leave the field within five years.

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