Lessons from the Board

Here are more questions from our conversation with Rupert that weren’t included in the print version. Read the original story here.

What are the priority issues for District 7?

Supporting principals, students, teachers, staff and community members and making sure we have grants to bring in health and social services to neighborhoods.

Bringing students and families back to our schools. … What most people don’t understand is that if we were given enough money to give the services needed, [lower-performing] schools would be in a better place because the kids wouldn’t be fleeing. … When parents call me and say, “I don’t want to go to this school,” I say, “I was one of those parents, so let me tell you how the school has changed.” I will take them on a private tour and at the end, we meet with the guidance counselor and the principal and talk about options. If they decide to go to that school, I’m happy. If they decide to go another school, I’m happy. It’s whatever they want to do for their kids. Before you opt out of one of the schools, at least come and take a look. We are inviting people back and they are choosing to come back.

Making sure that the district schools receive all the musical instruments that they ordered, and [making sure] renovations and repairs that were promised [happen] by my holding the superintendent accountable. He, in turn, needs to hold his  staff accountable to get it done.

I want to focus on reading at grade levels, teaching parents how to practice reading skills at home, and increasing mentors, tutors and community leaders. At Coconut Creek High School, we don’t have a ton [of mentors] but we have a nice start. I’m thrilled that many people from Wynmoor Village [the 55 and older community], instead of complaining about the high school, are now part of the process of helping. We’re going to hold Wynmoor football nights. They’re going to come and get a hot dog and meet the players. … The kids will see that everyone around here is coming.

What is being done to improve education for children on the autism spectrum?

The board hired Antoine Hickman as executive director of exceptional student education and support services in December 2015. He and Dan Gold, the chief academic officer, both understand that “all” means all. You can’t start an innovative program in Broward and not include children on the autism spectrum or exceptional student education children because we just forgot. That’s impossible. That happened with the chess and debate initiatives. Do we have opportunities to help and move forward? Absolutely. I’ve seen that we’re not meeting ESE kids’ individualized education programs or Section 504 accommodations. [Editor’s note: Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires that schools meet the needs of students with disabilities.] I saw that firsthand with my own children.

We have programs I love such as the Autism in Flight program. Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief has been a big advocate of it. JetBlue’s been phenomenal. The kids go to the airport, get to go on an airplane [as it taxies around the airport]. They get fed on the airplane. They get to experience what it’s like [to be on a plane]. It’s a wonderful program but we still need to go more.

We still don’t have enough staff in each of our schools to deal with our kids. Each budget process, we add more behavior specialists and I’d like to increase that. I’d say we have a better partnership with our ESE parents organization. They report to us every board meeting. They are a very vocal group, and they tell us what’s not going well. I talk to parents in my schools who are part of the ESE family group in my elementary schools—Norcrest Elementary and Tradewinds Elementary. Their principals are phenomenal. Leaders who get it hire people who get it and talk to parents and help the whole child and the whole family.

We’ve made some progress, but not enough and when you look at the ESE graduation rates, we’re still not there. We need to work on that.

How do you make parents’ needs known to the board?

I listen and share problems with the superintendent. Then I appropriate staff to follow up to make certain that the issue is known.

Something we can’t fix is getting into a crowded school. When parents call my office, they think I can pick up the phone and call the principal and fire him. Or I can pick up the phone and say ‘Mrs. Jones wants Tommy to go to Atlantic Tech High. I know it’s overcrowded. Can you make a spot for her?’ That’s illegal, and it’s not my responsibility. I tell them the process and I tell the superintendent and he gets his staff to get back to them to explain the process.

How parents should get more involved?

Join PTA and PTSA. There’s school advisory forums (SAF) and school advisory councils (SAC). Go to the schools’ and Broward Schools websites. Go to the Facebook pages, sign up for newsletters. I have a mailing list, and if there’s something that’s going to be happening in the community, [I put it in].

What are teachers’ biggest concerns?

Mostly it’s the lack of a respectful, professional salary and appreciation. Tenure was taken away after 2011, so … these poor teachers are on an annual contract forever and I don’t think that the state understands that. Broward County needs between 800 and 1,000 teachers for [this] year. How are you going to market that by saying, “By the way, if you’re new, every year, we get to not renew you”? …  I am on leave from teaching because I may want to return to teaching after the board, and I certainly want to keep all my certifications and endorsements up to date. But when I leave, I would be an annual contract teacher again. …

That is something that has to change in the legislature. We lobby them every year for higher pay. The answers that they give is us that they’re not ever going back to tenure and I disagree with that.

They also say there’s no time to teach. They are forced to do so many things during the day that are state-required that the actual aspect of teaching until your students master the subject is done. I’ve been hearing that from teachers for years now, but last year a change happened. The board started hearing from students saying ‘We are not able to master this. I almost get it and then we’re on to the next section and then when we have our test at the end of the year, we weren’t able to actually get all that because we moved on.” Students [from Mentoring Tomorrow’s Leaders] shared with the legislature and, they were so sweet. They also shared the fact that our teachers need to be paid more.

Not enough time to help the students. We’ve reduced the number of tests that Broward County does.

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.

One thing I would like to see is something that we started a few years ago but didn’t work. Broward College reached out to me and said they needed help reaching students in the public works field. ATC started a program in public works. They worked for a whole year. The glitch was because of the government having more stringent background checks. [For some of these people], this is their second try in life, and they couldn’t pass these background checks. I would like to see work in that area … and bring that program back. Cities are going to need a lot more people in public works as baby boomers are retiring and they don’t see people going into those fields.

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