Students at Basilica School of St. Paul were scoring in the lowest 20th percentile on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in 2016. Many also had disciplinary problems. There were discussions about closing the PreK-12 school in Daytona Beach.
Meanwhile, Ron Pagano, was weighing his next career move as he chose to retire from 36 years in the Volusia County traditional public-school system. And Basilica, which he attended as a young boy, had a special place in his heart.
“This is where I needed to be,” Pagano said. “I love being part of the community. I could be the change agent they needed to help.”
Since Pagano took over the helm as principal in 2016, students are performing at least 10 to 15 percentage points higher on the Iowa test and discipline problems have been reduced. Pagano changed the curriculum and hired five new teachers. He also began administering Measurement of Academic Performance assessments, a computer-based adaptive standardized test from the Northwest Evaluation Association that his students took three times a year to measure growth and achievement.
“We are monitoring as a school and teachers are more in tune with what is going on in the classroom,” Pagano said.
In the past school year, 77 percent of students made improvements in math and 64 percent in reading on the MAP, according to Lauren Barlis, director of learning management for the Office of Student Learning at Step Up For Students, which administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and publishes this blog. Step Up For Students formed a partnership with NWEA in administering the assessment and supporting teachers and administers in using the data to inform their instruction.
Pagano said 90 percent of students at the school receive the Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students.
Applying his lessons
Pagano remembers many of his teachers from his days as a student at Basilica.
“When I was there, I was not the best student,” he said with a chuckle. “I do remember being pushed by my teachers.”
His teachers instilled in him the importance of reading, which he hopes to pass on to students now. He challenges young male students, who sometimes prefer sports over reading, to find a balance.
During his high school years, Pagano became interested in education.
“My high school head football coach, Jim Kirton, was my inspiration and mentor,” he said. “He instilled in me a love for coaching on the athletic field, which I parallel to the classroom. And he loved his students more than the curriculum he taught.”
Teachers and parents say Pagano, like his mentor Kirton, is an active participant in the school. He leads the morning assembly and sets the tone for the day.
Walking to class through the domed archways on a recent day, students perked up when they saw Pagano, wishing him a happy early birthday. Pagano said he views the school as not only an education institution but an extension of the community. He has participated in an outreach program that helps bring food for families in the school. He also helped one parent find housing before becoming homeless.
Claudine Khouri, a disabled vet, choked up when she spoke about how Pagano helped her find a place to live. Of the school, Khouri said, “it is an extended family.”
Khouri said Pagano has remained in touch since her son, Kayvon, has been in and out of the hospital. Pagano connected him with tutoring services. He also intervened when her son was bullied.
The school serves 197 students who are all on free and reduced lunch. Forty-two percent are black, 38 percent are Hispanic, 12 percent are white, and 8 percent are Asian and other races.
Erin Roszak, who teaches second grade at the school, said when she struggled teaching a difficult class, Pagano took time to sit with her and offer advice.
“He is constantly pulling us to grow and get better,” she said.
And Lee Ann Brown, who teaches middle school math, said Pagano is a hands-on educator and is always coming up with ways to think outside the box.
When Pagano learned that students in Brown’s math and sciences classes were struggling, he split the classes, so students were able to have more one-on-one help from teachers.
“He gives us the autonomy to implement his ideas and expectations in a way that works with our specific classrooms,” Brown said. “Allowing us to take into account our personalities and the personalities of our students makes trying something new feel less daunting.”
Coming full circle
Pagano began teaching in 1980 as a biology and physical education teacher at Mainland High School in Volusia County. Several years later, he became assistant principal, serving at three schools in the county. In 1995, he became principal at Holly Hill Middle school and then two other Volusia schools before retiring in 2016.
During his time as an educator in the traditional public-school system, Pagano said he had misconceptions about private schools. He was under the impression that traditional public schools were losing money because private schools were siphoning funds away from those schools.
But when he became principal of Basilica of St. Paul, his view changed, especially when learning most of his students use the FTC scholarship. The state gives dollar-for-dollar tax credits to companies that contribute to nonprofit scholarship organizations to fund the K-12 income-based scholarships. A series of state studies have determined the scholarships save tax money that can be used to help traditional public schools.
“There is no doubt that it changed my viewpoint where funding comes from and where it is not being taken from,” he said.
Prior to serving at a Catholic school, Pagano also believed private schools did not have financial needs. That view also changed based on his experiences at Basilica. His school is in an urban area and the parish is not as strong financially as it was years ago.
Pagano said he wants to continue to move the school ahead and to sharpen his focus on parental involvement. “I am really trying to get the kids to understand their role as a learner,” he said.