Fire eater, cheerleaders for Clinton: A look back at 5 Avossa headaches

Avossa InterviewToday’s the last day of school for Palm Beach County’s 183,000 or so public school students. It also winds up the first school year for the district’s new Superintendent Robert Avossa. We take a look back on some of his biggest headaches this year:

West Boca High Principal Mark Stenner giving this year's graduation speech.
West Boca High Principal Mark Stenner giving last year’s graduation speech.
  1. Plagiarizing principal: Before the school year even began, Avossa faced a question about West Boca High’s Mark Stenner, the principal whose graduation speeches were nearly verbatim material from another speech – for two years in a row. A committee of Stenner’s peers recommended five days of suspension, but Avossa wasn’t happy with that, saying he wanted a 10-day suspension without pay. Then he reconsidered again and opted to remove Stenner from his job.

“I have to be honest with you, I’m not happy with the process.”  The question, he said, is can this process be viewed by the public as “people protecting colleagues”?

File photo (Meghan McCarthy/The Palm Beach Daily News)
File photo (Meghan McCarthy/The Palm Beach Daily News)

2. School bus crisis from Day 1Nearly 40 percent of the 630 school bus routes were late or didn’t show up at all. The superintendent showed up at Grassy Waters Elementary on the first day of school in August, but none of the school’s six buses did. Little did he know there was a big problem, and it was to last about six weeks. Avossa later called transportation officials “tone deaf” and criticized them for not heeding bus driver warnings about a new software program that rejiggered all the routes. He was furious they did not raise flags the new routes and being short staffed with drivers earlier.

 

“No one came and said the Titanic was sinking,” he said

Suncoast High students at Tuesday's rally for Hillary Clinton
Suncoast High students at Tuesday’s rally for Hillary Clinton

3. Suncoast cheerleaders, band play at Clinton rally: He got the heads up from Twitter. Avossa said he saw the Tweets and knew someone had violated district policy about political activity.  It was a Hillary Clinton rally at the Port of Palm Beach. Suncoast High cheerleaders and the band played for about 600 supporters as former President Bill Clinton stood in for his wife. Avossa said he was dismayed that a soon-to-retire veteran principal, Linda Cartlidge,  didn’t know better.

“Quite frankly, I’m disappointed,” Avossa said. “It’s clearly against district policy to be engaged in any political activity.”

Former stuntman Ricky "Inferno" Charles in the Atlantic High School gym, March 17, 2016, in Delray Beach, Florida, runs while on fire. (Photo provided)
Former stuntman Ricky “Inferno” Charles in the Atlantic High School gym, March 17, 2016, in Delray Beach, Florida, runs while on fire. (Photo provided)

4. Atlantic High fire-breather stunt: Kids packed the gymnasium at Atlantic High on St. Patrick’s Day for a pep rally featuring Ricky “Inferno” Charles breathing flames as another performer raced over them to dunk a basketball. The dunk worked out fine, but then screams erupted as 2,000 teens saw Charles’ face on fire. As Charles was taken the hospital, video of the flames lit up the Internet. Turns out Atlantic wasn’t the first high school in the county to host the fire-breather, but after his burns, Charles say he’s retiring from the fire business.

Meanwhile Avossa was “shocked.”

It’s “just common sense not to have any kind of fire in a school. When you put fire in a building, this is a problem.”

Palm Beach Lakes student Joseph Trahan, left, addresses the Palm Beach County School Board with teacher Malik Leigh at his side, March 16, 2016, at the school district in West Palm Beach. (Palm Beach County School District)
Palm Beach Lakes student Joseph Trahan, left, addresses the Palm Beach County School Board with teacher Malik Leigh at his side, March 16, 2016, at the school district in West Palm Beach. (Palm Beach County School District)

5. Teachers let go, geometry subs all year: Turmoil at Palm Beach Lakes: It started with a visit by high school teachers to a school board meeting to complain of a “toxic” atmosphere at Palm Beach Lakes High under Principal Cheryl McKeever. Then a student appeared in March, saying he and his honors classmates had a series of  substitutes teaching their geometry class for most of the year and they were worried they couldn’t pass end-of-year exams because they learned the bulk of the subject matter from watching videos. Malik Leigh, a teacher from the law academy, came with them.

The next day, children were called to the office and questioned. McKeever told the kids and their parents that they had run the full-time teacher out. A few months later, Leigh filed suit after his contract wasn’t renewed. His suit claimed McKeever had retaliated against a number of teachers by not hiring them back for next year. A week later, Leigh was suspended because his final exam was “inappropriate,” including questions about Donald Trump and being “screwed” if he’s elected.

 

Student to school board: We’ve had a math sub all year, we want an education

 

Palm Beach Lakes student Joseph Trahan and teacher Malik Leigh.
Palm Beach Lakes student Joseph Trahan and teacher Malik Leigh. (see video here)

 

See our updated coverage of this story including what happened to these students at school the next day here.  

A sophomore from Palm Beach Lakes High and four of his classmates, all eyeing careers in the justice system, came to seek a piece of that from the school board Wednesday night. They say they have gone the entire year without a regular geometry teacher.

Joseph Trahan told the board members and superintendent that they’ve been led by a series of substitutes, who regularly relied on YouTube math videos to deliver lessons.

“We’re just given busy work and grades for our busy work,” Trahan said.

He said the group is struggling to learn the concepts. Trahan said they did horribly on the district-designed mid-term, but are getting passing grades by benefit of extra credit points that come by buying the teacher sweets or drawing pictures.

“The current sub says stuff such as, ‘I am not a teacher. I’m here to babysit you and give you grades,’ “ Trahan said. “This isn’t what we want. We want a higher education. We demand more out of ourselves… When the EOC (end of course exam – designed by the state) comes around. we’re not going to be prepared.

“Time is not something you can get back. We’ve already lost so much time. We’re so ill-prepared.  And we are looking to you for help.”

When Trahan finished, board chairman Chuck Shaw asked the area superintendent to meet with the students.

Deputy Superintendent David Christensen said after the meeting that the matter will be investigated. “We are going to immediately address it and make sure there is a certified teacher for them.”

The students, a mix of freshmen and sophomores – boys and girls – from West Palm Beach, said they have high aspirations and reached an “Ah-ha” moment not while sitting in math class, but in their Legal Concepts and Comprehensive Law class in the school’s legal academy.

They were talking about contracts and negligence, said Lemuel Gadson, 16. Gadson and the others all had to sign a contract to enroll in the legal academy and then they wondered if the school was holding up its end of the bargain.

Their legal teacher, Malik Leigh, who both teaches and practices law full time, accompanied them to the board meeting.

“Nobody can do more about themselves than they can,” Leigh said.

But they weren’t alone in their fight.

Celena Trahan said she called her son’s guidance counselor, who simply noted that Joseph was carrying a B in the class – even though Joseph said he hasn’t earned it. Trahan also called an assistant principal, but got no action, she said.

Michelle Jackson said she was willing to forgive a staffing problem for the first couple weeks of school, but by the end of first semester she worried the gap was going to cause problems for her son Marques dragging down his GPA and his readiness to take college admission tests.

“My son has now lost a whole year of his math education,” Jackson said.