Report: Broward schools still divided by haves, have-nots

The problem of inequality in Broward’s public school system — an issue that sparked a citizen lawsuit in the 1990s — is far from solved, according to a report issued Tuesday by a group charged with monitoring the district’s progress.

In assembling the annual report, Broward’s Diversity Committee visited 17 schools — spanning all regions of the county and all socioeconomic levels. Inner-city schools were compared to schools in the posh suburb of Parkland. Schools with popular magnet programs were sized up against those without special academic offerings.

The picture that emerges is one of an uneven student experience that all too often is a reflection of family income. At the elementary school level, students at high-poverty schools such as Pompano Beach’s Markham Elementary attend class in an outdated building where teachers follow rigid classroom guidelines that were imposed on the school because of its low standardized test scores.

The teaching environment “allows for very little creativity,” the committee wrote in its report. The school hasn’t been renovated since 1987, and a portion of the property routinely floods when it rains, earning it the nickname “Lake Markham.”

“Markham should not be in the condition that it’s in,” Diversity Committee member Ernestine Price told School Board members. “The playground’s got nothing but sand ... when they paint, you know what they do? They paint over the rust.”

At the other end of the spectrum: the committee visited two Montessori schools, where students are mostly from middle-class or affluent families. At Hollywood’s Beachside Montessori and Fort Lauderdale’s Virginia Shuman Young Elementary, the students are given the freedom to learn at their own pace, using hands-on materials. Both schools have been built or rebuilt in the past 20 years, and both have the added benefit of a “large number of parents” who volunteer as classroom assistants or lunch monitors, according to the report.

There were other areas where schools succeeded — or failed — in ways that weren’t necessarily related to income. Cleanliness was one example.

The committee found Sunrise Middle to be a “very disappointing” dirty school, with peeling paint and poor landscaping . The three other middle schools visited, two of which had higher poverty rates than Sunrise Middle, were all praised for being clean.

A recurring criticism was that Broward cheats its low-performing students of a well-rounded education. At some schools, the committee said, students who score poorly on reading tests are forced to spend extra time in reading class — but in some cases, taking that double dose of reading prevents students from enrolling in elective classes that they might find enjoyable or engaging.

At Apollo Middle School in Hollywood, the committee found that the school’s new STEM program is often treated as an elective, and so its hands-on math and science lessons are usually off-limits to students with low reading scores. Apollo Middle School Principal Shawn Aycock disagreed, arguing that STEM is now sprinkled throughout the curriculum to benefit those who can’t take an elective.

“They’re not shut out,” Aycock said.

Regarding another criticism — that Apollo’s media center routinely closed at 2 p.m., depriving students of its computers and other resources — Aycock acknowledged that had been the case, though she said it was a consequence of budget issues that preceded her arrival. The school’s staffing has been adjusted to extend hours of operation, she said.

Some members of Broward’s Diversity Committee were also part of the Citizens Concerned about our Children community group that sued the district in the 1990s. A 2000 legal settlement called for the Diversity Committee to continuously monitor Broward’s progress in creating a more-equal school system.

Broward’s district leadership, who took over long after the lawsuit, welcomed Tuesday’s report as honest, valuable feedback. Though Broward has an extremely tight budget for renovations, Superintendent Robert Runcie said many issues in the report can be addressed through better leadership and policies.

“There are a lot of things that we can fix, even when we don’t have money,” said Runcie, who added that he intended to make every Broward principal read it.

Diversity Committee chairwoman Jeanne Jusevic was so overwhelmed by the reception that she became teary-eyed.

“This is the first time that a superintendent hasn’t patted us on our head and sent us on our way,” she told district leaders. “Thank you, so very much.”

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