McLaughlin Middle Proposal Envisions ‘Wall-to-Wall’ Academies, Addition of High School Grades

McLaughlin Middle Proposal Envisions ‘Wall-to-Wall’ Academies, Addition of High School Grades

Breaking news from Polk County Public Schools

Polk County School Board members on Tuesday heard a proposal for the future of McLaughlin Middle School and Fine Arts Academy that includes the addition of high school grades and wall-to-wall academies that emphasize both the fine arts and STEM.

“We have to ask ourselves whether the students who go to McLaughlin have the same access and opportunities as the students that go to Lakeland High and Bartow High,” said Chief Academic Officer Michael Akes, one of four district administrators who presented the McLaughlin proposal to the School Board.

“The answer right now is ‘no.’ This plan is about bringing those same opportunities to the students in the Lake Wales community.”

During Tuesday’s presentation, Akes outlined a vision for McLaughlin that combines ideas from members of the school’s staff with best practices borrowed from leading programs such as High Tech High and The Kennedy Center’s Arts Edge.

“This is a unique opportunity for students in the Lake Wales community,” said Micky Polley, a McLaughlin teacher who spoke in favor of the proposal during Tuesday’s School Board meeting.

The proposal, she said, would create a “Harrison-like” experience for students in southeast Polk.

“Why limit students to an eighth-grade arts career in Lake Wales,” she said. “Lake Wales needs this. It needs a non-charter option where all students will have an equal opportunity for a fine arts education.”

The McLaughlin proposal includes:

  • Expanding the school to include grades 6-12; currently it serves grades 6-8.
  • Converting the school to a “wall-to-wall” academies design, meaning every student would participate in an academy intended to prepare them for higher levels of education and the workforce; academies would be aligned to high-skill, high-wage career paths.
  • Polytechnic Academies that would emphasize STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), including engineering and computer sciences; natural resources and sustainability, medical and biological sciences.
  • Fine Arts Academies that would include music, musical theatre, technical theatre, dance and visual arts. The Fine Arts academies would build on the arts programs already in place at McLaughlin, one of the district’s five Florida Arts Model Schools. Fine Arts Academies would also complement the vibrant arts scene for which Lake Wales is known.
  • A variety of elective courses that would blend STEM and the fine arts; courses would be in areas such as architecture, journalism, multimedia production, fashion business and design, product design and marketing, and industrial design.
  • A full range of Advanced Placement and dual-enrollment options and opportunities for students to earn industry certifications before graduation.
  • Small class sizes to ensure personalized attention, as well as internship and mentorship opportunities.
  • A space dubbed “Digital Learning Commons,” where students would have access to a state-of-the-art fabrication equipment as well as other technology.
  • Intramural sports available immediately and the addition of high school sports as grades 9-12 are added, as well as extracurricular clubs and summer learning programs.

All of the academies at the school will be accessible to ESE (exceptional student education) students and students with disabilities, with various supports provided to meet those students’ needs.

Ensuring every student takes part in an academy is crucial to student success, Akes said.

“Research tells us that when kids are involved in academies, their attendance and academic performance is improved,” he said.

Under the proposal, McLaughlin would remain a zoned middle school. All students who complete the eighth grade at the school would have the option of continuing to the high school, tentatively called The McLaughlin Academies.

The McLaughlin proposal is farther reaching than even grades 6-12. Akes explained that the school district would also work to enhance the curriculum at Spook Hill Elementary, which feeds into McLaughlin.

“What we would do is align the curriculum at Spook Hill with the curriculum at McLaughlin Middle and The McLaughlin Academies,” Akes said. “You’ll have fourth-and fifth-graders choosing ‘mini-majors’ in the fine arts or the polytechnic track. That’s going to get them excited and make their education take on greater relevance because they will be able to see those next steps at the middle- and high-school levels.”

According to the proposed timeline included in Tuesday’s presentation, the revamped McLaughlin would add a ninth-grade class in the 2020-21 school year. By the 2023-24 school year, McLaughlin would have added a 10th, 11th, and 12th grade and would be celebrating its first graduating class.

No additional funds be necessary to achieve the changes proposed for McLaughlin, Akes said.

Akes explained to the School Board that the McLaughlin proposal would be paid for using federal Perkins funding that the district receives to support its career and technical education programs. As the school expands to include the upper grades, additional staff would be paid for with state funding the district receives based on student enrollment.

The proposal is fiscally responsible in other ways, Akes added.

With approximately 600 students, McLaughlin building is currently only being utilized at 57 percent of its capacity. Adding grades 6-12 would make better use of the building, while still allowing for middle and high school students to be served in separate areas of the campus, which Akes acknowledged may be a concern for parents. Additionally, creating a zoned, non-charter high school in Lake Wales will reduce the number of students that the school district must bus out of the area, cutting the district’s transportation costs. Currently, there is not a zoned, non-charter high school in Lake Wales.

The School Board expressed interest in hearing more about the proposal, especially the thoughts of staff and community members. Akes said he and his staff look forward to gathering more information and continuing to discuss the plan with the Board.

Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd said the McLaughlin proposal is about “addressing the systemic needs” of both the school and the Lake Wales community.

To listen to the full discussion on the McLaughlin proposal, visit