With jokes about school buses being on time firmly in the rearview, Superintendent Robert Avossa was free to boast at this year’s State of the Schools address that 21 of the county’s schools picked up their D or F grades to a C or better, the graduation rate hit an all-time high just above 82 percent and his team has made changes to the way they work with schools to continue improvements.
That’s not to say the picture is all rosy.
Most daunting, at the state’s last calculation only 52 percent of the district’s third graders read on grade level. And the majority of those who don’t aren’t in failing schools, Avossa told the gathering of about 500 business and education leaders Thursday at a West Palm Beach luncheon sponsored by the Education Foundation, the school district and the Business Development Board.
(200 students were there too. See photos below)
That makes for a long road to Avossa’s goal that 75 percent of third graders read on level within the next five years.
“You’ll see we have a lot of ground to cover,” he told the room.
To do that, Avossa said the district is using a number of strategies. Among them, the district-wide use of iReady adaptive educational software that ideally adjusts based on a student’s knowledge, meeting them at their ability and challenging them to bring them up. (The approach hasn’t been without its critics, who have spoken at board meetings about both technical frustrations and philosophical disagreements.)
Avossa talked about helping teachers and administrators at the most struggling schools with some of the district’s top former principals, each given a small portfolio of campuses to advise and mentor.
Third grade is a critical year, when a child’s performance on the state language arts test means moving on to fourth grade or being held back. Rather than focusing the best teachers and biggest efforts at each school on third grade, Avossa said he wants to see those efforts spread over the earlier years from kindergarten to second grade.
Avossa also touched on programs that guide high schoolers who are poised to be the first in their families to attend college, another that connects mentors with struggling middle school students. His administration continues to seek ways to address the disproportionate number of minority students who are suspended.
When he wasn’t talking about students, Avossa was talking about the teachers and other district employees who make change possible. He talked about the pay raises approved this year, including one that brought up the pay of 1,300 of the district’s lowest earners with an hourly income of $8 and change.
He noted that starting teacher salary in the district is up to $41,000, which is competitive, but the scales becomes stagnant leaving teachers with seven to 10 years out with not much more than their freshmen colleagues.
Before leaving the stage, Avossa asked the audience to consider ways in which they and their businesses might thank a teacher.
The fun stuff
While the presentation was all business, school district officials did spice up the presentation. A drum line (loudly) greeted attendees. More than 200 students were on hand to represent their schools and show off their culinary team, robotics accomplishments, and the like. One student navigated a drone as guests mingled before lunch. Cheerleaders flipped down the center aisle after lunch.
Photos by Ben Rusnak /Palm Beach County School District.