Avossa: New plan will help schools teach “all students, not just some”

Avossa Dais
Superintendent Robert Avossa speaks Friday at the Education Forecast 2016 event at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach (Photo courtesy of the Palm Beach County School District)

Citing statistics showing deep disparities in how students fare in Palm Beach County’s public schools, Superintendent Robert Avossa unveiled a new strategic plan Friday that he said would help schools to provide a “world-class education for all students, not just some.”

Speaking before about 800 educators and business and political leaders at the Kravis Center in downtown West Palm Beach, Avossa said that schools’ money and resources would be redirected to focus on four new goals approved by the school board Wednesday.

Those goals are: raising the portion of third-graders reading at grade level from 51 to 75 percent, raising the high school graduation rate for district-operated schools from 85 to 90 percent, and increasing high school and post-graduate readiness.

To illustrate the disparities, he laid out several statistics that illustrated what he called telling markers of which students succeed and which don’t.

Third-graders who score in the highest level on the state’s reading test have a 98 percent chance of graduating, he said, while those who score in the lowest level have just a 64 percent likelihood.

Eighth-graders who receive three or more suspensions in a year have only a 1 in 3 chance of graduating, he said.  And less than 60 percent of students who speak English as a second language go on to graduate high school on time.

While Palm Beach County is the highest-performing of Florida’s large school districts by many measures, he said that too many students struggle. The most challenged group: poor male students who grew up speaking a language other than English, he said.

If you’re a student in Palm Beach County schools who happens to fit that profile, “you’re in trouble,” he said. “We’ve not found a way to meet your needs.”

Plans for tackling the new goals are still being worked out, he said, but include concentrating more resources on teaching reading in students’ early years, identifying at-risk students before they are suspended, revamping teacher training, and expanding Pre-K programs for some of the county’s neediest students.

The event was hosted by the Education Foundation of Palm Beach County and the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County.

Lofty new goal for Palm Beach County 3rd graders: Ambitious or unrealistic?

Palm Beach School Superintendent Robert Avossa talks with 2nd-grade student Sarah Walker, 8, as she eats breakfast at Lincoln Elementary School Monday, August 17, 2015. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)
Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa talks with a 2nd-grade student at Lincoln Elementary School. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa is proposing a lofty goal for Palm Beach County’s third-graders. So lofty, in fact, that he concedes that many people may consider it impossible.

Avossa is calling for 75 percent of the county’s third-graders to be reading at grade level within five years. Last year, scarcely more than half did.

It’s the most ambitious of the four metrics that Avossa says should be used to measure the success of his new strategic plan, which aims to realign resources and employees across the school system.

(The other three include raising the high school graduation rate to 90 percent and increasing high-school and post-graduate readiness).

School Board members Frank Barbieri, Marcia Andrews and Debra Robinson (File photo/Thomas Cordy/The Palm Beach Post)
School Board members Frank Barbieri, Marcia Andrews and Debra Robinson pushed for a more ambitious goal. (File photo)

But Avossa says he thinks the goal is attainable, even though he admits it’s “a stretch goal.”

“We’re going to throw everything at it,” he told Extra Credit. “My goal is to rally all the troops to say in Palm Beach County, as a community, we’ve got to get three-fourths of the kids reading at grade level by third grade.”

“When you set goals, they should be ambitious,” he added, “but they should also be attainable. You don’t want a whole lot of discouraged troops out there.”

If approved by the school board today, that 75-percent goal will be a key component of his strategic plan, which is set for a high-profile unveiling Friday at the Kravis Center in downtown West Palm Beach.

Such an ambitious goal wasn’t part of Avossa’s original plan.

Last week, he suggested that the school district’s stated aim should be to have 65 percent of third-graders reading at grade level in five years.

Last year, just 51 percent of the county’s third-graders were at that level, as measured by their scores on the Florida Standards Assessment. So a jump to 65 percent by 2021 would certainly be a large one.

District records show that the over the last five years the reading-competency rate for third-graders has not risen at all. In fact it dropped last year, from 55 percent to 51 percent, as the state moved to a new test and more difficult standards.

But Avossa’s proposal seemed low to three school board members, who told him last week that they wanted to see the goal set at 80 percent instead.

“I’m just not interested in dreaming little dreams,” school board member Debra Robinson said.

She said that by setting the bar even higher, “it would really, truly be all hands on deck.”

Her suggestion for an 80-percent goal was endorsed by board members Marcia Andrews and Frank Barbieri.

“I think that would put pressure on you to put the budget in the right place,” Barbieri told Avossa.

Goals, of course, are just theoretical targets. But Avossa told board members he wanted to set ones that would be “realistic and achievable.”

Robinson, Barbieri and Andrews disagreed. Setting even higher goals, they argued, would force educators to think even more ambitiously and, perhaps, act more ambitiously.

“This is almost like a life or death thing for these kids,” Robinson said.

Two other board members, Karen Brill and Erica Whitfield, said they worried that 80 percent was too high, but neither opposed the suggestion.

“It worries me a bit,” Brill said, “but if we can do an aspirational goal of 80 percent….then I’m all on board for 80 and 90 percent.”

“But it’s going to be very hard to get there,” she warned.

After that meeting, Avossa revised the goal up, from 65 to 75 percent.

It’s not quite the 80-percent target that the three board members requested, but it’s far higher than what it had been.

“They challenged me,” Avossa said. “They said think bigger, think broader. Let’s push the system.”

He said that to pursue it, he expects to make major changes to how the schools teach in kindergarten through third grade, along with a “big play” in Pre-K. He said he expected to announce more details in the next few months.

Here’s a breakdown of how 3rd graders performed on state reading tests in recent years:

Students reading at grade level in 3rd grade
Students reading at grade level in 3rd grade (Source: Palm Beach County School District)

School board may require lobbyists to register, disclose activities

School Board members Frank Barbieri, Marcia Andrews and Debra Robinson (File photo/Thomas Cordy/The Palm Beach Post)
School Board members Frank Barbieri, Marcia Andrews and Debra Robinson (File photo)

People who try to win business or influence policy decisions at the Palm Beach County School District would have to register as lobbyists under a proposed new rule.

Lobbyists would have to disclose any companies that they work for, as well as any professional or personal ties to school district employees. They would also have to reveal their lobbying activities and expenses.

School district administrators say they are proposing the new policy as a way to “ensure that the public has full knowledge of who is attempting to influence the decisions that affect School Board policy.”

The move comes amid a heavy lobbying campaign by the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County, which has been pushing school board members to allow millions of dollars in prospective sales tax revenue to be redirected from schools to private museums and cultural centers.

Officials are also bracing for a lobbying push by the county’s charter schools, which are expected to fight for a piece of any sales tax revenue raised if a tax increase is approved this year.

But School Board Chairman Chuck Shaw said the proposal has been in the works for more than a year,  part of an effort to create the same transparency already in place for lobbying in county and city governments.

“The important thing is that we know and that people have identified themselves as lobbyists,” Shaw said. “Sometimes people talk to us and you’re not sure where they’re coming from.”

The policy carves out exemptions for union officials, school-affiliated parent groups, such as PTAs, and company sales representatives.

School board members are expected to discuss the proposed new policy on Wednesday, although no formal vote is planned.

The county government and the county’s 38 cities already require lobbyists to register.

Resigning WPB principal decried “inappropriate” handling of school investigation

Source: Google Maps
Everglades Elementary School (Source: Google Maps)

Eleven days before she resigned abruptly this week, the principal of Everglades Elementary School complained to school district administrators about how they handled a harassment complaint at her school, including “how the victim was treated.”

Amie Souder
Amie Souder

In a Feb. 11 email obtained by Extra Credit, Principal Amie Souder objected to how the school district investigated a complaint by the school treasurer, who accused the previous principal of sneaking into the West Palm Beach-area’s school’s back office in November to berate her.

The investigation found that the previous principal, Tara Dellegrotti-Ocampo, now the principal of Atlantic High School, “verbally abused” the treasurer during an argument about the placement of business’ banners at the school.

Souder, who replaced Dellegrotti-Ocampo at the school this year, objected that the investigation – which resulted in a letter of reprimand to Dellegrotti-Ocampo – failed to assign blame to other school employees who she said were involved in the incident.

“Not only do I not agree with the results,” she wrote, “but it was handled completely inapropriately [sic] on multiple levels, including but not limited to how the victim was treated.”

Souder did not elaborate on the treatment of the school’s treasurer.

Tara Dellegrotti-Ocampo
Tara Dellegrotti-Ocampo

But in the email, she expressed frustration that the investigation did nothing to discipline “the 3 employees on my campus who both initiated and participated in this incident.” Her email did not name the employees.

“I am obligated by the State of Florida to not only maintain ethical conduct but to uphold it on my campus,” she wrote.

Souder asked that the school district reopen the investigation and assign it to a different investigator.

During the investigation of the November incident, the treasurer said that Dellegrotti-Ocampo appeared to criticize Souder during the run-in, saying “the problem is in that office” and pointing to Souder’s door, records show.

Souder, 39, submitted her resignation on Monday. A school district spokeswoman said her resignation was due to “personal and professional reasons.”

Souder did not return a call seeking comment.

The West Palm Beach-area school is located south of Southern Boulevard and west of Florida’s Turnpike.

Everglades Elementary principal resigns abruptly

Source: Google Maps
Source: Google Maps

The principal of Everglades Elementary resigned abruptly this week, leaving school district administrators scrambling to name a new leader to run the West Palm Beach-area school.

Amie Souder
Amie Souder

Amie Souder, 39, who took over as principal this school year, submitted her resignation on Monday, citing “personal and professional reasons,” a school district spokeswoman said.

School district administrators alerted parents Tuesday evening. By Wednesday, they had tapped school district administrator Joe DePasquale to run the school until a new principal is named.

Wednesday morning, Extra Credit published a report about an incident at the school in November involving the school’s previous principal, Tara Dellegrotti-Ocampo, who snuck into the school’s back office and scolded the school’s treasurer.

Souder was interviewed by school district administrators about the incident but did not appear to be directly involved.

It was not clear whether Souder’s resignation was related to the incident. She did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Souder, a school district employee since 2002, had been an assistant principal at Bak Middle School of the Arts before taking the helm Everglades Elementary.

The school is located south of Southern Boulevard and west of Florida’s Turnpike.


Atlantic High principal reprimanded after run-in with former employee

Related: A fiery bastketball stunt goes awry at Atlantic High’s pep rally Thursday, March 17. 

UPDATE: The current principal of Everglades Elementary has resigned.


The principal of Atlantic High School has been reprimanded for sneaking into the back office of her previous school and scolding a former employee.

Tara Dellegrotti-Ocampo
Atlantic High Principal Tara Dellegrotti-Ocampo

Tara Dellegrotti-Ocampo, who took the helm at Atlantic High in Delray Beach this school year, became the target of a school district investigation after the treasurer of her previous school, Everglades Elementary, complained in November that she had berated her in front of colleagues.

The investigation found that Dellegrotti-Ocampo entered the back office of the school without permission and “verbally abused” the treasurer. Surveillance camera footage also caught her kicking at the door of her employee’s office, school district records show.

The dispute was over the school’s policy on hanging banners, witnesses said. In a letter of reprimand, a school district area superintendent told her that matters at Everglades Elementary were no longer within her job responsibilities.

“Accordingly,” he wrote, “you should not have discussed these topics or redressed any employee at Everglades concerning a school operations or personnel matter.”

Dellegrotti-Ocampo was ordered not to contact the school staff again without permission from the new principal.

Reached this week, she declined to comment on the incident.

A day to fight bullying, the origins of the pink T-Shirt and a movie star

It’s that day of the school year once again when we consider bullying, how to prevent it and what to do when confronted with it…and don pink T-shirts – but we’ll get to that in a minute.

First, know that several Palm Beach County Schools have planned events or conversations for this day, including Okeeheelee Middle School which has perhaps the biggest headliner of the day: The actor who played football player Michael Oher in the movie The Blind Side, Quinton Aaron.


School officials say Aaron will spend the day at the school in suburban West Palm Beach. He’s talking at morning assemblies and then working with smaller groups at lunch time.

Now, back to those pink T-shirts…

pink shirt


Wearing a pink T-shirt made one boy in a school in Canada a target for bullies in 2007. But his classmates didn’t stand for it. They rallied by buying a mass of pink tank tops at the local dollar store and handing them out for kids to wear the next day.

Out of that show of support was born Pink T-Shirt Day – now an international event.

Wednesday in Palm Beach County, the Literacy Coalition is sponsoring events to further the anti-bullying message during Pink T-Shirt Day.  Suncoast High School students volunteered to support Pink T-Shirt Day in the district’s schools. And Berkshire Elementary in West Palm Beach is making a day of it with dancing, art-covered halls and more.

Here’s part of the Pink T-Shirt Day origins story from The Globe and Mail:

“David Shepherd, Travis Price and their teenage friends organized a high-school protest to wear pink in sympathy with a Grade 9 boy who was being bullied [for wearing a pink shirt]…[They] took a stand against bullying when they protested against the harassment of a new Grade 9 student by distributing pink T-shirts to all the boys in their school.

‘I learned that two people can come up with an idea, run with it, and it can do wonders,’ says Mr. Price, 17, who organized the pink protest. ‘Finally, someone stood up for a weaker kid.’


As they stood in the foyer handing out the shirts, the bullied boy walked in. His face spoke volumes. ‘It looked like a huge weight was lifted off his shoulders,’ Mr. Price recalled.

“The bullies were never heard from again.”

Mr. Dreyfoos wants Dreyfoos School of the Arts to tweak its name

Alexander Dreyfoos
Alexander Dreyfoos thinks more science-inclined students should apply to Dreyfoos School of the Arts (2007 file photo)

The namesake of the Dreyfoos School of the Arts, the prestigious arts-themed public school in downtown West Palm Beach, doesn’t want it to be known as just an arts school anymore.

At Wednesday’s school board meeting, Alexander Dreyfoos, who made his fortune manufacturing photography equipment and was founding chairman of the Kravis Center, asked board members to add the phrase “and Sciences” to the school’s title.

The school‘s new name would be: The A.W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts and Sciences.

“I don’t want to change anything else about the school,” he said. “I don’t want to see any changes in the curriculum or entry standards.”

Alexander Dreyfoos at Wednesday's school board meeting
Alexander Dreyfoos at Wednesday’s school board meeting

But he said that he worried that too many children with an interest in both arts and sciences feel compelled to apply elsewhere to nurture both passions.

“My goal is to have more eighth-grade students in Palm Beach County who have a great interest in both the arts and sciences apply to the Dreyfoos school,” he said.

Dreyfoos acknowledged that some teachers at the school are worried that adding “Sciences” to the school’s title could dilute its brand.

“I’ve talked to some of them,” he said. “They’re scared that just changing that name will change the importance of the arts.”

Dreyfoos argued, if anything, changing the name would boost the school’s arts reputation – by encouraging even more arts enthusiasts to apply.

“Making this change would in no way lessen the importance of the arts at the school,” he said. “In fact it would lead to even more talented arts students being at Dreyfoos.”

To win over skeptics, Dreyfoos offered an additional incentive: more money.

If the school changes its name, he said he would cover the cost of changing signs and would increase his regular donations to the school.

“If you approve this name change, I will increase my annual gift,” he said.

School board Chairman Chuck Shaw told Dreyfoos that board members would “seriously take into consideration” the proposal.

Avossa to cut 58 jobs, direct $5 million more to poorest schools

Robert Avossa, Superintendent of the School District of Palm Beach County, speaks to members of the media about the bus situation in a press conference Wednesday, August 19, 2015. (Bruce R. Bennett / The Palm Beach Post)
Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa (Bruce R. Bennett / The Palm Beach Post)

Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa wants to steer an extra $4.5 million a year to the county’s poorest public schools by slashing nearly 60 jobs in the school district’s administrative bureaucracy.

In a plan to be formally announced this afternoon, Avossa will call for the elimination of 58 positions in the school district’s regional offices, reducing their staffs by more than half and eliminating what he called “redundancy built into the system.”

The resulting savings would then be shifted to the schools with the poorest student populations, where principals would have greater discretion to use the money to tackle their schools’ particular needs, Avossa said.

The poorest 66 schools would receive an extra $100 per student, while another 49 schools with high numbers of poor students would win an extra $50 per child.

All told, Avossa said that those schools would receive an extra $5.3 million a year, as a result of the restructuring and related funding shifts.

The proposal, which will be considered by the school board today, is the first of what are expected to be several reforms to the public school system’s operations as Avossa works with a consulting firm to identify inefficiencies in the school district’s $2.3 billion budget.

The overhaul of the regional offices, which would take effect in July, would require all 101 employees in those offices to reapply for new positions.

Many will be rehired into the 43 jobs that will remain, Avossa said. But more than half – 58 in all – will have to find positions as teachers or school administrators or leave the school district.

Avossa said he expects all displaced employees will have a chance to apply for new positions in the school district, pointing out that county’s schools hire roughly 1,000 new teachers each year.

Meanwhile, the thinning of the middle-management ranks, he said, will allow the school district to operate more smoothly and allow more resources to directly aid students and teachers.

“It’s become abundantly clear that there’s been redundancy built into the system,” Avossa said.

The large-scale restructuring will require approval by the school board, which is set to consider the plan this afternoon.

The proposal was not added to the school board’s agenda until just hours before the meeting, an unusual move. Avossa said officials rushed to place the plan on the board’s agenda at the last minute to allow as much time as possible for affected employees to begin applying for the newly created positions.

Currently, the school district’s five regional offices – technically called “area offices” – help to manage the county’s roughly 185 district-run public schools, which educate more than 165,000 students and comprise the 11th or 12th largest public school system in the nation.

Each area office is responsible for between 30 and 38 schools and is overseen by an area superintendent and a staff of about 18 managers and specialists, records show.

Separate, three “transformation directors” with their own staffs provide additional supervision and support to the county’s most troubled schools.

Combined, the regional and transformation offices cost the school district more than $9 million a year to operate.

Under Avossa’s proposal, the five regional offices would be reduced to four, with direct supervision of the schools split between regional superintendents and subordinate teams of “instructional superintendents.”

Three transformation-director positions would be eliminated entirely, their responsibilities assumed by the regional superintendents. Also eliminated: 38 area team specialist positions, 11 area resource teacher positions and eight administrative assistant positions.

The net savings to the school district would be $4.5 million, according to a school district report.

Avossa said that that money would be pumped into the budgets of the county’s poorest schools, the ones which qualify for extra federal funding because the portion of poor students that they teach is so high.

Principals would have broad discretion to use the money as they see fit, although they will still be constricted by federal regulations on how the money can be spent. In most cases, Avossa said, principals will likely hire extra teachers or specialists to support their students’ needs.

Avossa said that giving principals more flexibility will not only allow them to tailor their budgets to their schools’ specific needs, it will allow for a reduction of regional office positions dedicated largely to overseeing how resources were shared between schools.

“You essentially eliminate middle management just by pushing (those jobs) to the schools,” Avossa said.

Employees in the regional offices learned this week that they will have to apply for new jobs. Avossa said that he expects everyone will have the chance to compete for new positions.

“I’m not trying to put people on the street without jobs,” he said. “No one is going hungry.”

Avossa credited the overhaul to research conducted by Boston-based Education Resource Strategies, a non-profit education consulting firm that the school board hired in October to analyze the school district’s operations.

Avossa said he expects many more reforms to result from the company’s findings. But he argued that the $4.5 million in spending cuts proved that the money spent on the consultant’s work was already paying dividends.

“We never really understood how this money was being spent,” he said.