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Catherine Martinez: New school superintendent promises evaluation, change

“Are you ready to roll up your sleeves and get the work done?”  Robert Avossa, the new Palm Beach County schools superintendent, asked an enthusiastic group of 250 to 300 in the Glades Central High School media center this past Thursday evening.

The crowd was a cross-section of school administrators, teachers, staff, parents and local politicians. School board members Marcia Andrews and Frank Barbieri attended as well.

The meeting began with Andrews introducing  Avossa, explaining the process of selecting him and his qualities that made him stand out to her and the board. He then briefly told his own story, how he was born in Italy after World War II. His father, though, won a visa lottery allowing him to immigrate to the United States with his family.

Avossa grew up in Florida but initially struggled with English and with school. However, his sister mentored him and caring teachers motivated him to study special education. He said he believes all children can learn. He also said teachers can’t do their job alone, that the entire system must be held accountable for student outcomes.

In his experience, he said, he has discovered that courageous conversations must be had about race and class, and that questions about how to solve the problems in Palm Beach County must be asked without placing blame.   

The new superintendent also said he plans to put the best and most-experienced teachers and administrators in the schools that need them most. He committed himself to retaining teachers and raising graduation rates. Avossa, who was a schools superintendent in Atlanta, said he hadn’t brought a 90-page strategic plan from Fulton County, Ga., but that he wants to hear from Palm County residents about what they want done. 

The crowd then broke up into numerous small groups of about 15 to 25 that discussed the answers to four questions:

  • What’s the best thing about Palm Beach County Schools? 
  • What are the challenges facing the Palm Beach County School District? 
  • What do you think will make the school district stronger? 
  • What are the most critical areas where you think he should place his focus?

Each group talked about five minutes about each question, while a secretary took notes. Then they selected a spokesperson to share their conclusions.

Many ideas were predictable: more vocational training, more resources for Glades area schools, and more magnet programs.  Teacher recruitment, training and retention came up often as well.  Many presenters argued for less testing and test prep and more actual teaching. The student presenters argued for more funding for after-school programs such as for art clubs. Several mentioned they wanted equal treatment for students and teachers out in the Glades.

At the end, Avossa asked all the students to stand and asked the crowd to give them a round of applause.

He then warned those present that he had come to Palm Beach County to solve problems and that change is hard. His job as superintendent, he said, is to shake up the bureaucracy and make waves. After finishing community tours, he said he’ll produce a strategic plan.

Once it has board approval and it’s implemented, Avossa said, he’ll repeat the process every quarter to celebrate successes and make changes if necessary.

His community tour makes two more stops this time around, the first at 6 p.m. Monday at John I. Leonard High School and at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Roosevelt High School.

Catherine Shore Martinez is a National Board Certified teacher at Pahokee Middle Senior High School in Palm Beach County. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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