Dania’s Olsen Middle has problems, even before school opens

Having just moved to Broward from Tampa, the Ogrodowski family had a nice Friday planned: 7th-grader Dylan would attend a quick open house at Dania Beach’s Olsen Middle School, and afterward Mom, Dylan and his older sister would go back-to-school clothes shopping.

But Friday quickly turned chaotic for the Ogrodowskis and more than 100 other Olsen Middle families. For the fourth year in a row, Olsen botched the creation of student schedules, forcing parents to wait in hours-long lines to correct the errors.

Things got so tense at one point, with lines crowding both the cafeteria and school media center, that parent Celia Ogrodowski overheard a school staffer suggest it might be time to call police to keep order.

“I’m like, whoa, wait a minute, what kind of school is this?” Ogrodowski said. After arriving at noon, 12-year-old son Dylan at 3 p.m. still was waiting to fix a class schedule that inexplicably included two periods of the same math class, but no first-period class whatsover.

“I was confused,” Dylan said.

Olsen Principal Valerie Thomas, who stood on a cafeteria stage calling up families one-by-one, declined to speak to a reporter, referring all questions to the school district’s public information office. Broward spokeswoman Tracy Clark did not return a call seeking comment, and Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie also did not return a call placed Friday afternoon.

The scheduling problems have dogged Olsen since Thomas took the principal post there several years ago, and they are not limited to first-week hiccups.

Olsen teacher Terry Preuss, who is also the school’s union steward, said a student last year went without a science class until around April. Even stranger, the school kept issuing the young girl report cards as if she had a science class, and it gave her repeated Fs for the non-existent class.

“Her parents were very upset about that, her parents were actually punishing her,” Preuss said. “She kept trying to explain to her parents that she didn’t have a science class.”

“Eventually,” Preuss said. “They did believe her.”

Preuss blamed the school district’s inaction for allowing Olsen to descend into a tailspin. Aside from the repeated schedule problems, Preuss complained of Olsen steadily losing enrollment, experiencing a decline in student test scores, and suffering from disruptive staff turnover.

In at least some cases, Preuss said, those staffers aren’t choosing to leave — the principal forced them out.

There was one staff departure in June that struck Preuss and others as particularly harsh. The principal laid off Pat White, an office clerk who worked at Olsen for 28 years. She had attended Olsen and sent her children there.

White had failed a typing test, and was promptly shown the door.

“It feels like my school has been gutted,” Preuss said.

For parent Nidia Sica, it feels like it might be time to pick a new school. Sica spent hours at Olsen Friday trying to get her son Victor’s schedule fixed — the school, for the second year in a row, mistakenly assigned him to English Language Learner classes. Though Victor was born in Colombia, he speaks English fluently and has been in standard English classes for years.

“Look at this,” his mother said, pointing to the long cafeteria line. “This is unbelievable. What parent can take off of work for four hours?”

Sica, who runs an adoption agency, said the long wait forced her to cancel a conference call she had scheduled with the U.S. State Department.

When Victor transferred to Olsen late last year, his mother said he was stuck in ELL classes for nine weeks — even though she called every week to complain. The principal kept saying “we’ll get right on it,” Sica said, but nothing was done.

As Olsen has been losing enrollment, so too has the Broward school district as a whole — often to competing charter schools. The trend threatens the district’s long-term survival, and Broward recently spent about $40,000 to hire the Disney Institute, in hopes that Disney could offer advice on improving customer service.

Sica said Olsen has a long way to go.

“They think that you’re stuck here, and that’s how they treat you,” she said.

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