It might have been a first to watch its inaugural graduating class walk toward diplomas, but it wasn’t the first year for excellence at Cutler Bay Senior High School.
The school, at 8601 SW 212th St., celebrated a graduating class of 76 students on June 9 under principal Lucas De La Torre. And at Cutler Bay’s July 20 council meeting, the town celebrated several of the educators who brought excellence to the school, presenting proclamations to lead teacher Justin Koren and Marshall Ruffo.
Koren earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in theater arts from Boston University, before earning his master of education from Nova Southeastern University. He earned a certificate in change leadership from Cornell University and a Doctorate of Philosophy from Curtin University in Western Australia.
In 2005, he began his teaching career with Miami-Dade County Public Schools as an English teacher at Southwood Middle School in Palmetto Bay. He was named the school’s rookie teacher of the year. In 2011, he joined Centennial Middle School and was named lead teacher in 2012. From there, he helped lead the school’s transition into Cutler Bay Senior High School. In 2013, the town council appointed Koren as school district liaison to the town’s youth council committee.
“It was a privilege to honor and thank both Dr. Koren and Mr. Ruffo for their many contributions to our Cutler Bay Senior High School,” said Mayor Peggy Bell, whose son Jamie was taught by Koren at Southwood. “They have both been instrumental to the success of the school’s specialized programs. When our schools succeed, it benefits all residents of the community.”
The school enhanced its letter grade from the Florida Department of Education from C to B in 2014, B to A in 2015, and has a preliminary A grade again in 2016.
“Thank you so much for this honor and this recognition,” Koren said at the meeting.
“I want to publicly say this is wonderful that the town recognizes the hard work that we put in, but I would be remiss if I didn’t say how fortunate we all are to have a town that believes in public education and stands by public education,” Koren said. “It has made coming to work in this town and community such an honor and such a privilege each and every day. So I thank you for your unwavering resolve and I look forward to much more prosperity in the future. “
Koren helped the school develop three academic tracks: COAST Academy, iPrep Academy, and the Liberal Arts Academy. He also helped implement the international Cambridge program. Koren has received the Clear Channel Radio Outstanding Educator Award, among other honors.
Ruffo is the lead teacher of the Cutler Bay Ocean Academy of Science and Technology (COAST) program. He attended Cutler Ridge Middle School before being part of the first four-year graduating class at Maritime and Science Technology High School (MAST Academy). From there he earned a bachelor of science in biology with a minor in chemistry at Florida International University. The marine science teacher has earned his dive masters certification and United States Coast Guard’s captain license.
As the founding father of the COAST program, Ruffo encourages students to ask questions. As a result of the COAST program, students helped work as a team to construct a solar-powered, electric car that completed in the 2015 FIA Miami ePrix.
“Working at Centennial Middle School, which is now Cutler Bay Senior High … the transformation really came from the town,” Ruffo said. “The support that this town and this community have put behind our high school has been monumental and really instrumental in changing the culture of a school.
“As a teacher, I feel very blessed and fortunate to not only live in this community that I was raised in,” he said. “I get to teach at a phenomenal high school that you guys really and truly put on the map by supporting us each and every day. You did it at the very beginning financially and you guys have not walked away. You guys are always there for our community, for our kids, and I’m very blessed to be there. Like Dr. Koren said, it’s a great place to go to work. We love doing it. We have amazing kids and an amazing community and we thank you guys for that.”
In 2014, Ruffo was awarded the Francisco R. Walker Miami-Dade County Teacher of the Year Award. He was then a science teacher at Centennial Middle School.
“We are very lucky and honored to have two teachers from the Miami-Dade County Public School system that are dedicated to elevate that high school to where it is right now, currently an A school,” Town Manager Ralph Casals said. “They’ve both been there since inception and its wonderful to see all of their good work, especially with the graduating class.”
Cutler Bay Senior High School opened in August 2012 with a freshman class. The school added another class each year, culminating in its inaugural graduation.
“They do a great job of recruiting kids and increasing that level of academic excellence at that school,” Casals said. “We are very proud of both of those individuals. (They’re) always doing work in the community, having the kids participate in a lot of our meetings as well as our internship program with Dr. Koren and Marshall Ruffo, who is not only involved in the COAST, but also involved with the swim club and water polo club for the school.”