Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie, who is the district’s first permanent black superintendent, said black males often enter kindergarten already behind their peers academically — making high-quality preschool instruction hugely important. When it comes to student discipline, the district is hoping aggressive teacher training will help erase a trend where boys of color are often punished more severely than their white counterparts for the same misbehavior.
Runcie said he’s confident all students, black males included, can succeed, but right now “it’s a multitude of factors that converge into a perfect storm of tragedy, in terms of wasted human potential.”
Runcie’s task force is built on the hope that the combination of teamwork and data analysis will yield powerful results. It has more than 100 members, including community organizations, church groups, and government agencies from the Broward State Attorney’s Office to local police departments.
There’s also a coalition of about 10 local university researchers who have pledged to help, hailing from schools such as Barry, Florida International and Nova Southeastern. They will spend three years analyzing Broward’s task force, and will provide feedback on what works and what doesn’t.
Key elements of the district’s plan include each high school (joined by the middle and elementary schools in its feeder pattern) creating its own customized “Turning the Curve” strategy. As part of that process, each high school “zone” identifies its total number of black male students, along with each student’s level of academic preparation. The district is also investing in teacher training that it hopes will make classrooms more engaging. Social services such as professional counseling and drug addiction treatment will be offered to families where instability at home is a root cause of student underachievement.
Mentoring, too, will be a big emphasis, with that role being filled by community members, teachers, or even students’ own peers.
“Many of these black males do not have father figures in their lives, which has a huge impact,” said Mickey Pope, executive director of Broward’s student support initiatives.
Even before Broward launched its task force, school-based mentoring had a fan in Dillard student Deondre Miller, who graduated last week. Back in 10th grade, on the first day of school, his grandfather, who had been his role model, died. The coaches and male teachers at Dillard quickly stepped in to fill that void, said Miller’s mother, Latosha Taylor.
“They motivated him to get a job. It was excellent,” she said. “I couldn’t be there, I had to work, I’m a single parent. So they came behind me like, ‘Don’t worry about it, Ms. Taylor, he’s a good kid, I got him.’ ”
Miller, 18, said he remembered school counselors plucking him out of class immediately after his grandfather’s passing. That counseling, coupled with the wrestling coach who called home when his grades slipped, and bought him shoes when the family couldn’t afford them, made the teen feel valued and special.
“I felt like an individual,” said Miller, who is planning a career as a computer engineer.
Runcie says the district’s focus on black male students will benefit society as a whole: Students who drop out are at risk of turning to criminal activity, and the cost of incarcerating someone far exceeds the cost of educating that person. Also, Runcie said, Broward needs to do a better job of tailoring the school experience to each student’s particular needs, meaning the lessons learned by the task force can be applied to all races and genders.
“We cannot use the factory model any longer in public education,” Runcie said. “That’s not going to help us be successful as a nation.”
Although it has only just begun, the task force has caught the eye of school district officials across the country, who have reached out to Broward for more information. Barry Associate Professor of Education Gerene Starratt, who is one of the researchers involved, said the initiative stands out because it’s being implemented throughout a large urban school district, and it targets students of all ages, including the early grades.
“The high schools complain that the kids they get from middle school aren’t ready,” Starratt said. “The middle schools complain ... if you’re not looking at it from the beginning, you’re discovering problems that are too late for you to solve.”