BROWARD SCHOOLS

Broward rolls the dice with bold plan for inner-city schools

 

More than 2,000 students will be impacted by a plan to overhaul Broward County’s inner-city schools, leaving some parents wary of the overhaul.

mrvasquez@MiamiHerald.com

To fix a cluster of poor-performing inner-city schools, Broward has launched a plan that is big and bold — but also risky.

Instead of the usual fixes that school districts employ in such situations (a new principal, new teachers or longer school days, for example), Broward is turning several of its schools upside-down, and starting from scratch.

The goal, at least in part, is to create a new team of schools that provides not just the standard reading and writing curriculum, but also offers family counseling services, referrals to social service agencies and job training for Mom and Dad. The district says families in these neighborhoods, who are at times dealing with extreme poverty, will benefit from this all-in-one educational approach.

“What we’ve tried to do is balance all of that,” Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said. “We not only look at what’s in the best interest of our students, but also what’s in the best interest of the families and community.”

Bringing this vision to fruition, however, will require quite a bit of disruption.

At the end of this school year, two schools — Fort Lauderdale’s Lauderdale Manors Elementary and Arthur Ashe Middle — will effectively close, at least when it comes to the students they currently serve. Lauderdale Manors will turn younger, morphing into a pre-K school and parent resource center. Ashe, meanwhile, will grow much older, and transform into an adult vocational learning center.

Also starting this August: Lauderhill Middle will partner with Broward College for a sixth through 12th grade college academy — an initiative the district hopes will not only improve student performance but also expose at-risk students to the idea of college. Fort Lauderdale’s Dillard High School (which is not a failing school, and last received a C grade from the state) will also begin serving middle school students — many of them coming from the shuttered Arthur Ashe. And Fort Lauderdale’s Sunland Park Elementary will shift to serving pre-kindergarten through third grade.

All told, more than 2,000 students will be impacted.

ABOVE AND BEYOND

The sweeping changes have left parents and teachers at the affected schools overwhelmed, and, at times, skeptical. Though the district is in some ways forced to act because of Florida’s school accountability laws, Broward’s plan goes much further than the state requires. Under a state law that took effect in July, schools with a history of failing grades have to implement significant changes, but nothing in the law forces Broward to close Arthur Ashe and Lauderdale Manors. In Miami-Dade County, for example, the school district has eight schools that fall under the accountability law, but closures are not being discussed. At Campbell Drive Middle in Homestead, the district’s plan follows the typical practice of installing a new principal and staff while also pumping in additional resources.

Miami-Dade schools could not immediately provide its plans for all eight schools.

One important detail: if any of these South Florida schools do well when the state’s school grades are awarded in July, no action would be required under law.

Miami-Dade School Board member Lawrence Feldman, whose district includes Campbell Drive Middle, said he hopes the school performs well enough in July to make the issue moot.

“If not, we’re prepared to take it to the next level and work even harder,” he said.

‘MANIPULATION’

Broward, on the other hand, is committed to its ambitious overhaul — no matter what the school grades say. In theory, that means the district could end up closing a school that actually showed impressive improvement this year, once all the FCAT scores are tallied.

Newasann Sutherland, a parent, is furious about what Broward is doing. Sutherland has three sons who attend Lauderdale Manors, and a fourth son attending Arthur Ashe. Though Broward has held a plethora of community meetings on the schools plan, Sutherland says the district never really listened to what the public wanted, and failed to adequately inform parents of what was actually happening. Sutherland complains that district fliers used to advertise community meetings didn’t mention the most important detail: school closures.

“It was a lot of manipulation,” Sutherland said. “The less we know, the more they can do.”

Others call Broward’s plan overly disruptive. Though state law dictates that failing schools must change in some significant way, some argue that what these struggling schools desperately need is a dose of stability. According to district records, the four schools at the heart of Broward’s plan — Lauderdale Manors, Ashe, Sunland Park, and Lauderhill Middle — have had 18 school principals in the last decade.

In the case of Arthur Ashe, mistakes by district leaders have seemingly doomed the school from the start. Even before Ashe was built, School Board members in 1999 faced criticism over whether the district had overpaid for the land it sits on — perhaps because that land was owned by a politically influential taxicab operator. Broward bought the land for $4.3 million — $2.5 million more than the taxi operator had paid for it six years earlier.

There were also questions about whether Broward even needed a new middle school in that neighborhood, as the population growth was happening out west. To fill Ashe’s classroom seats, the district asked nearby middle schools to donate some students, and those schools often sent over their biggest troublemakers, eager to be rid of them. At Ashe, fights predictably broke out.

“We have to say the district failed Arthur Ashe,” said neighborhood activist Joe Major. “Arthur Ashe did not fail the district.”

Asked about possible mistakes in how Broward previously managed these schools, district spokeswoman Tracy Clark said, “We have to look forward … there’s no time machine, we can’t go back in time.”

CHANGE OF SCENERY

Meanwhile, Broward’s executive director for educational programs, Leslie Brown, says the district’s school-revamping plan is indeed a product of community input. In neighborhood meetings, Brown said, people repeatedly asked for expanded pre-school offerings, and the new schools provide exactly that. The public also wanted children to be more aware of college, Brown said, which helped lead to the Lauderhill Middle partnership with Broward College.

At Dillard, where high school teens will now share the campus with middle-schoolers, Broward is pitching the format as modeled after its high-performing Nova schools in Davie, which also combine multiple schools on one campus. Dillard’s principal, Cassandra Robinson, is well regarded in the community, and that’s one reason that Glendora Thames is optimistic about her grandson Marcus attending Dillard as an eighth grader this fall. Thames was less-than-impressed with Ashe, which is where Marcus goes to school now.

The problems at Ashe, she said: a lack of challenging work for the students, and a culture where students felt emboldened enough to talk back to teachers, and speak in foul language. Marcus was starting to pick up bad habits, Thames said, and she welcomed the change of scenery for him.

“I think it’s a good thing,” Thames said. “I’m hoping that it’s something good.”

Miami Herald Staff Writer David Smiley contributed to this report.

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