School board member gives insight into local school issues

HeadshotNora Rupert has an office, but as the Broward County School Board representative for District 7, she’s more likely to be somewhere in Coconut Creek, Deerfield Beach and parts of Pompano Beach and Margate. While traveling around the community, she holds panels, meets students and parents, and speaks to local clubs, PTAs and civic groups.

Originally from New York, Rupert studied mass communications at Florida Southern College and worked as a sales representative at the South Florida Sun Sentinel. She eventually became an educator, teaching reading at Piper High School in Sunrise; she was elected to the school board in November 2010.

She and husband Eric, who is chief technology officer for the city of Coconut Creek, have lived in the city for more than 20 years while raising their three adopted children, Dylan and Jared, both 24, and Brenna, 19. All three went to Coconut Creek Elementary School and other area schools, such as Lyons Creek Middle School, Margate Middle School, Monarch High School, Northeast High School and Pompano Beach High School.

Currently vice president of the school board, Rupert has encouraged adoption and foster care throughout her district; she recently has educated parents on social issues such as the opioid crisis. Coconut Creek Lifestyle spoke to Rupert about the board, the upcoming school year and more.

Nora & students 1What is the job of a school board member?

Our main job is to set the goals and the vision for the district, adopt policies, give the district direction, set priorities and achieve those goals. We hire and evaluate the superintendent, adopt and oversee an annual budget, and manage the collective bargaining process for district employees. … Typical items that we are asked to approve at our school board meetings include the school calendar, code of conduct, adopting the curriculum and approving contracts.

The hard part is balancing the business items with making sure our district is paying close attention to our priorities for academic achievement for all students. Board members really have no power as a person; our power is with the board corporate. You need yourself and four others for a majority to be able to pass anything.

An example is that it took me several years to get Coconut Creek High School a magnet program. It passed last year, and [2016 was] the first year we implemented it. I’m so proud. We had over 100 students sign up; that’s huge because we were losing students. Our goal is to bring back students who were using other options and give them a viable program that will make sure they are in a field with high-wage jobs in the state as well as an opportunity to go to college.

What you can do as an individual is up to each member. I don’t work a second job. I use my time trying to better my lower-performing schools—increasing tutors, mentors, grants. I also try to increase parental participation. [Editor’s note: Rupert tutors students in reading for free.]

What are challenges that high school students face that they didn’t face 10 years ago?

It’s the constant online presence. They are plugged in all the time. I’ve seen kids have what I would call a nervous breakdown when you take their phone away. But the worst part is how vicious cyberbullying and cyber harassment can be.

Broward was the first district [in the state] to put in an anti-cyberbullying policy. And I helped introduce anti-cyberbullying state legislation. I helped write the bill with [former state senator] Dwight Bullard. It was based on my daughter Brenna’s experience when she went to Sawgrass Springs Middle School and was cyberbullied. I had to take her out of school and homeschool her. She returned to school at Margate Middle School. Prior to that bill, you could only discipline students who were bullying on school computers. [The law now allows that] it can be any computer as long as it has a connection to a substantial negative academic effect on a student. [Editor’s note: The senate bill put forward by Bullard gave way to House Bill 609, which he sponsored. Gov. Rick Scott passed it into law in May 2013.]

Lack of critical thinking has been an effect from the 10 years of the teach-to-the-test mentality. We hear from our business community partners all the time—and I see it too. [When businesses interview students for jobs], students are ready to answer questions that perhaps they found online—but when [interviewers] ask for further clarification or an example, [students draw a] blank. They’re lacking in critical thinking because they were taught to the test, which is what teachers were told to do. Gladly, we’re now back to critical thinking, but we’ve lost a good 10 years or so of kids who are in their 20s now.

I’m glad we as a board have decided to push more science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) than science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Once we took the arts out of the schools, the light went out in these kids’ eyes.

With Chef RudyWhat distinguishes Coconut Creek schools from other schools in Broward?

I see it in terms of community. Four times a year, the Coconut Creek commissioners [meet with school principals]. Our commissioners take personal responsibility for our schools’ success. They’re good partners and active members in the community.

[The elementary schools and Lyons Creek Middle School] focus on student-centered work and showcasing their students’ talents at parent nights. They have hundreds of parents show up. At schools in other parts of my district, if we have six parents show up at an event, it’s a big deal.

One of the major things that makes Coconut Creek, especially the elementary schools, different from other cities’ schools is that they have principals and teachers who have been there for long periods of time, and that continuity and stability means a lot to the community. There’s nothing like going to Coconut Creek Elementary and seeing that my kids’ fifth-grade math teacher is still there.

What are some of the challenges in District 7?

I have a dichotomy of schools and neighborhoods and communities. The U.S. News and World Report Best High Schools listed Pompano Beach High, Atlantic Tech and Monarch. But I also have some of the most struggling elementary schools in the Pompano Beach and Deerfield Beach communities. … The challenge is to make them as successful as the schools in Margate and Creek.

We need to focus on social and emotional learning programs. We have to make sure there are interpreters and social workers to help [families] with the programs and understand what their family dynamics need.

We need health services. [For the elementary schools], I brought in, two years in a row, Give Kids a Smile from the American Dental Association; $300,000 of dental treatment for District 7 kids. We treated roughly 700 kids [in both 2015-16 and 2016-17]. What broke my heart was that parents were allowed to bring other children in the family, and we saw children in high school who had never had fluoride or other preventive treatments.

What do you hope to see in Coconut Creek’s schools in the next five years?

Coconut Creek High School at capacity with children from Creek and Margate, and the areas around us wanting to go there because of the fabulous magnet program. I want to see students walking to Coconut Creek High instead of tons and tons of buses. That is my dream.

I’d love to see the northern part of our area have a pilot program for flying and for the entire airline sector. We have that in Miramar, but nothing in the northern area [of Broward]. I’ve been talking with the city of Pompano Beach about possibly doing a combination with Broward College and our schools, maybe Blanche Ely High School, to get a program. It’s a huge, growing field. Pilots make more than $100,000 a year, but it’s not just pilots; they need culinary and they need mechanics, so it’s really a connection with our Atlantic Technical College programs.

You spoke at several graduations over the summer. What did you share with students?

I ask students to be open to possibilities, and if you think someone’s going to tap on your shoulder and ask you to take a chance, it’s not going to happen. You’ve got to be available, making your own way in the world, but also being open to the opportunities around you.

Also, never, ever give up. My three children are adopted, but we went through seven adoptions; four birth moms changed their minds. Had we given up after every failed adoption and just walked away, I never would have the family that we have today.

Finally, I always ask them to bring their new talents and skills back to Broward County; I really hope some of them come back to be teachers.

School Spirit

Rupert notes some Creek education accomplishments from the 2016-17 school year.

Tradewinds Elementary: Placed in the 94th percentile in Title I schools in English language arts and the 87th percentile in Florida schools for English language learners among schools where 25 percent or more of the student population are ELL learners.

Winston Park Elementary: The governor recognized student performance on state examinations. Among Title I schools in Florida, Winston Park is in the top 5 percent in language arts and the top 3 percent in math.

Lyons Creek Middle: Increased student academic growth from the 27th percentile to the 85th percentile. Added 12 new innovative programs that give children high school credit.

Monarch High: Nicole Knorr made the All-Star Chorus all four years of school. The band placed third in the state competition. Won girls volleyball district championship.

Coconut Creek High: Implemented mentoring program. Increased graduation rate by 19 percent. Seven students were offered full scholarships to play football at Division I schools.

Atlantic Tech: Had 100 percent graduation rate, with students earning more than 245 industry certifications and licenses in addition to their diploma.

Additional Info

To learn about District 7 and sign up for the district’s newsletter, visit browardschools.com/school-board/district-7.