Editor’s note: Throughout August, redefinED is revisiting stories that shine a light on extraordinary educators. Today’s post, first published in June 2018, relates how a Cuban immigrant rose to become principal of a Catholic school in south Florida that is becoming increasingly diverse under her leadership.
DELRAY BEACH, Fla. – Vikki Delgado remembers the difficulty her father experienced when he settled the family of six in America.
Living as a Cuban immigrant, he faced backlash. But he sought to bring his family out of Cuba in 1959 just as Fidel Castro was coming to power.
“There was pushback,” Delgado said. People thought “my dad was coming to take jobs away. That somehow opening doors to others is going to take something away from them.”
“You would see signs against Cubans,” she added. “I saw how polarizing that can be.”
The family of six settled in Miami in 1968 after spending a few years in Ohio. He left his home of Cuba right as Fidel Castro emerged in power in 1959.
Arriving in the United States at the age of 3, Delgado did not know a word of English. She began to learn the language at the age of 5 through TV programs such as Captain Kangaroo.
In her 20s, she saw the nativist backlash against the Mariel Boatlift and race riots in Liberty City. Such events affected her deeply.
Delgado is now the leader of St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic School in Delray Beach, Fla. The strife she witnessed in her youth fuels her drive to create a school where all are welcome. Like in Florida Catholic schools as a whole, the student population at her school has grown increasingly diverse.
When she first became principal at St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic School in 2008 there were few minority students at the school.
“Everybody looked the same,” said Desiree Alaniz, a fourth- and fifth-grade teaching assistant at the school. “Everybody spoke the same. You would see one minority child in every three classes.”
When Delgado first took the helm, the school had approximately 318 students, and more than four out of five were white. In the decade since, enrollment has increased by 46 students, and children of color comprise nearly a third of its student population. In other words, the school’s demographics are coming more closely in line with those of the community it serves, and students of color are driving enrollment growth.
This shift at St. Vincent embodies a statewide trend. Data from the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops show the percentage of black and Hispanic students attending Catholic schools has risen steadily since 2011.
Delgado says the desire to welcome all types of children embodies the Catholic faith.
“We are the universal church,” she said. “The same mass is celebrated daily around the world. The traditions may be different. The culture differences are there but that only adds to the richness of the Catholic church and school.”
Delgado said she was able to help diversify the school by offering tax credit scholarships to low-income students and working-class students, and the state’s voucher program for children with special needs, the McKay Scholarship Program. More than a fifth of the school’s students now use one of those two programs. (Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the tax credit scholarship program.)
“It is wanting all families to have choice,” she said. “I think me having a second language, I wanted families seeking a Catholic education to feel at home.”
Delgado is “open with different people from different backgrounds,” Alaniz said. “I think she brought to the school more of a sense of accepting people with their differences: Not only among the students but the culture of the faculty and staff.”
A love of teaching
Growing up, Delgado remembers teaching her siblings at a young age. She discovered she loved helping others learn. Her mother also was a kindergarten teacher at the time, which inspired her toward a career in education.
“I think I was a teacher my whole life,” Delgado said laughing.
At first, she fought the urge to go into teaching, as the arts were calling her. At the same time, her father urged her to stray from the role because he worried about the low salary of a teacher.
But she couldn’t stay away for long.
Delgado studied music and education at the University of Miami, graduating with degrees in both subjects. She then earned a master’s in educational leadership at Nova Southeastern University in 1990. From there, she then taught five years in Miami-Dade public schools.
From 1995 to 2004 she taught Pre-K at St. Vincent Ferrer and then returned in 2008, encouraged by her mother.
Room to grow
Parents have been drawn to St. Vincent’s strong academics and versatile arts programs. The school is planning to expand and renovate thanks to a $6 million dollar fundraising project to create additional space. This will allow the school to double its capacity and put in a science lab, expand the media center and allow space for an early childhood program.
“We are building a new building because I think people in the community trust Delgado a lot,” Alaniz said. “She also brought in all the technology and iPads.”
Dean Charles said his daughter, Angelica, loves dance class at St. Vincent.
Delgado has made an investment in her students and families, Charles said. When he first enrolled his daughter for first grade, Delgado had already become familiar with Angelica’s previous school and its principal.
“She makes it her business to know all of her students,” Dean said. “She always gets back to me. I don’t have to wait until Monday to get an answer.”
Delgado said she learned her work ethic from her father, who never gave up and worked in numerous jobs, from counting money at football games to serving as a bank teller to working as a payroll clerk for the city of Miami, where he retired.
Indeed, Alaniz said it is not uncommon for her to receive an email from Delgado at 3 a.m. She is constantly thinking about ways to improve things at the school.
Eric Keiper, music teacher at the school, said there’s a close-knit, community atmosphere.
“When my wife was in the hospital, every single day Delgado called me as soon as the meeting was over,” he said. “Every single teacher in school asked, how is your wife? The priest went to visit her at 10 o clock at night. It is magical.”
Each year students are invited to come up with a character-based theme the school will emphasize throughout the year.
In previous years, students chose the Oscar Wilde quote: “Be yourself because everyone else is taken.” This past year’s was: “Your life is God’s gift to you. What you do with it is your gift to God.”
“It is living life with a purpose,” Delgado said. “What are you going to do with your life?”
Delgado continues to teach the importance of tolerance and respect for everyone.
When she visited Milwaukee recently and attended a baseball game she heard individuals making fun of the baseball players last names’ because they were Hispanic.
She took the opportunity to let the individuals know kindly that she and her husband were from Cuba.
The two men responded with a surprised look.
“I know God is going to give me an opportunity to teach them a lesson,” she said. “We want to open people’s minds not shut down the mind because we are attacking.”
It is a lesson she teaches students.
“When you are given a choice, choose kindness,” she said. “No one can come back at you with kindness. I see that openness of mind occurring in our children, which gives me hope.”
Editor’s note: Throughout August, redefinED is revisiting stories that shine a light on extraordinary educators. Today’s post, first published in May 2018, describes how principal Martin Reid transformed the Arthur & Polly Mays Conservatory of the Arts in Miami from a low-performing small magnet program to a school with a graduation rate higher than the state average.
Sitting in the back of the classroom, Hermes Velasquez was a quiet student.
He had stage fright and was embarrassed to stand up in front of other students at an award-winning magnet school for the performing arts south of Miami.
But slowly, with the help of his teacher, Adalberto Acevedo, and the school’s family-like culture, Velasquez overcame his stage fright. To get over his fear, he familiarized himself with the stage by helping to put props out. Then he started acting in supporting roles.
Indeed, he competed in the 2018 Florida State Thespians Festival — a theater competition with 6,000 students across the state — earning excellent marks for his sketch of a comic play, the Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged.
Arthur & Polly Mays Conservatory of the Arts, a visual arts magnet program, focuses on reaching students like Velasquez and helping them grow academically and in the world of the arts. Martin Reid, the school’s principal, has transformed it from a low-performing small magnet program with a sour reputation and student disciplinary problems to a school with large parental involvement and a high graduation rate surpassing the state average. School officials say they expect in the least the school’s grade will rise from a C to a B this year.
Its improvement tracks a broader trend in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, which has eliminated F-rated schools and expanded district-run school choice programs.
Reid said the school’s mission is to prepare students for college and for work in the arts industry or a hybrid of both.
“They are goal-driven and they are motivated in their careers,” he said of the students. “We are able to give a lot of attention and support to the kids. We are able to drill down to their strengths and weaknesses to motivate them.”
Since Reid took over the reins at the school in 2009, it has been awarded Magnet Schools of America’s Merit Award of Excellence in 2014 and 2017. It also received the Merit Award of Distinction.
In 2016, the magnet school association named Reid its Principal of the Year.
“When Martin Reid took over the school, he really revamped the performing-arts program there and really changed the culture of the school,” said John Laughner, legislative communication manager for Magnet Schools of America.
School officials say Reid is a hands-on administrator who knows all the 604 students by name and has an open-door policy to reach them.
“I always try to inspire and motivate the students whenever I talk to them,” Reid said, explaining his door is literally open most of the day. “When I have a grade level assembly I don’t use a microphone. So much mutual respect is given, we are able to have conversations.”
Reid explained that when students understand why their education is important, they tend to take ownership.
Victor Ferguson, a senior, has known Reid since the sixth grade. The 17-year-old, who plans to attend Clark Atlanta University, said Reid always makes sure he is focused and is on top of his studies.
He will give him advice on what he needs to do to be successful, Ferguson said.
Acevedo said Reid puts on his stomping boots and leads pep rallies.
“He knows everything going on in the classroom,” he said. “He goes in and observes.”
Kristina Beard, the school’s magnet lead teacher, said Reid encourages teachers to run with their ideas. At every faculty meeting, he reviews data and offers positive feedback for teachers.
Reid also remembers students who are struggling and inspires them to keep going, Beard said.
When Reid arrived at the school in Goulds, Fla., 29 miles south of Miami, it was vastly different than it is today. The school was a middle school serving students up to eighth grade. Its small arts magnet program was dying.
Reid, who has a master’s degree from Nova Southeastern University, a bachelor’s from Florida A&M University and a special education degree from the University of Miami, commended the staff at the school he took over. He said they were excellent. But he knew he had to tweak some things.
He created a culture of literacy by connecting everything the school did with the number of books students read. For example, to attend a dance, students had to read five books.
Further, he instituted a teacher-of-the-month program and changed the instructional model. He instituted an approach, known as gradual release, that shifts instructional responsibility to the ownership of the child. While the teacher remains the facilitator, students are taught to think critically and how to focus on the cognitive demands by working in groups and by themselves.
“When teachers just stand and lecture, the kids are not even engaged,” he said. “This forces engagement.”
To tackle discipline issues, Reid implemented conflict meditation and hired a dedicated counselor.
What he found is that often students need to just talk to a counselor. This, he said, has helped reduce disciplinary issues.
He wanted to shift the school’s mission from an urban middle school to a magnet school conservatory.
“We had to rebrand our school,” he said.
Now the school serves students from sixth to 12th grade and is a visual arts school focusing on band, chorus, theater, media production and all disciplines of literature.
Nearly half of the students are Hispanic and the other half black.
“We have been able to diversify our school by doing two things: focusing on providing a world quality education in a safe, clean, creative and inspiring learning environment and aggressively marketing our program to as many schools as we possibly can during the recruitment season,” Reid said.
Reid formed a partnership with the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, which allowed the school to become an official conservatory.
He also engaged parents.
“We were able to get an active PTSA,” he said. “We had kids with parents who had a long-term vested interest in the success of the school and they were committed to working and making sure they had a voice in the region with the school board members.”
The curriculum is also different from a traditional public school.
“What separates us is we have an eight-period day, which allows kids to do more with their education and have more of a voice in their education,” he said.
For example, if a student is struggling in math, he may have to take remedial courses, but there is still enough flexibility in his schedule that he won’t have to sacrifice art class.
The school has improved in its Florida Standard Assessment scores. For example, in 2014, 36.2 percent of 10th grade students scored a 3 or higher on the English Language Arts assessment. In 2017, 62 percent of students scored a 3 or higher, surpassing the state average of 50 percent.
At the same time, the graduation rate continues to climb. In 2014, 83 percent of students graduated from the school. That number grew nine percentage points to 92 percent in 2016-17, surpassing the state average of 80 percent.
Education remains Reid’s lifelong passion.
“I chose education because I truly wanted to make a difference in the world,” he said. “No other profession allows one to have such a positive impact on society. As an educator you have the opportunity to shape society in the image of ‘Decency.’”
Editor’s note: Throughout August, redefinED is revisiting stories that shine a light on extraordinary educators. Today’s post, first published in August 2018, features two strong school leaders, one in Palm Beach and one in St. Petersburg, who saw critical needs at their schools and took the necessary steps to address them.
When Robin Brown took the helm as principal of West Riviera Elementary School in Palm Beach in 2017, the school was struggling.
It had been designated a “D” by the Florida Department of Education.
Realizing the situation, Brown made critical changes.
She assigned 28 teachers to the grade level she felt they were best suited to teach, strengthened the school’s leadership team, collaborated with education professionals who have done effective work in school turnaround programs, and reached out to business leaders who have saved failing companies.
As a result, the school rose two letter grades to a “B” this year.
Brown, who participated in a new legislative initiative known as Principal Autonomy, credits the program with helping to improve student achievement at her school, where 98 percent of students are on free or reduced-price lunch.
The program, which is now open to any district in the state, has given several principals the opportunity to build leadership skills and mark their own vision on how their schools can improve. Those principals say the program is helping to increase student achievement and giving them the opportunity to think outside the box.
Under the new law, principals are given more flexibility and greater authority over staffing, the curriculum and the budget.
Brown said the program “allows you to gain valuable insight from other educators from different parts of the country who have completed the same type of work and have been successful. It helps us to help our leadership team build their capacity, so we can function at a higher level to improve student achievement.”
Last year, LaKisha Falana, who also participated in “principal autonomy,” decided to deviate from Pinellas County district guidelines and select a different math program for her students at Maximo Elementary School – a school whose struggles have been documented by the Tampa Bay Times.
The change in math, coupled with other instructional changes, helped boost her students’ fifth-grade Florida Standards Math Assessment test scores. Indeed, 46 percent of students scored a level 3 or above this year on the assessment compared to 37 percent the year before.
Like Brown, Falana has just completed her first year in the program and said she appreciates the ability to make site-based decisions.
“If there is something I want to do that is outside the box, then I have the autonomy to try it,” Falana said. “It helps us as a leadership team to narrow our focus and our vision. We developed a strategic plan in order to get the results we are seeking to achieve.”
State Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, wrote the legislation that created the Principal Autonomy Pilot Program in 2016. That first year, three school districts – Broward, Palm Beach and Pinellas – were allowed to pick low-performing schools that could enter autonomy-for-accountability agreements with the state.
In 2017, the program was extended to all school districts. Three schools in Broward – Bethune Elementary, Village Elementary and Park Lakes Elementary – have now participated in the program for two years and the schools all earned C’s this year compared to D’s and F’s in previous years.
Diaz, a former public-school administrator, said instilling leadership in a school is one of the most important things in improving student achievement. “You bring in a leader who is dynamic and fits the bill and they themselves incorporate their program, get things done, and it matches the needs of the school,” he said.
Diaz said improvements in student achievement take time and one essential ingredient is that the school culture must be changed at the onset. “When you bring in high-performing leaders who care, you are going to see a change in culture first before you see empirical results,” he said.
Falana said she put several practices in place to improve student achievement at Maximo Elementary School, which improved one letter grade to a C from the previous school year. Above all else, Falana said teachers must focus “like a laser” on standardized-based instruction and they must ensure students master the standards for their grade level.
She also altered the structure of the instructional team at the predominately black school, where all its students are on free or reduced-price lunch.
Although the school remains a C, Falana said she is hopeful the school’s grade will improve.
The Florida Department of Education reported no new school principals have registered for the autonomy program for 2018-19. However, signups for the program are open until December.
Editor’s note: Throughout July, redefinED is revisiting stories that shine a light on extraordinary schools. Today’s spotlight, first published in November 2018, focuses on the lengths to which one Catholic school was willing to go to serve students with special needs.
The losses were small but concerning. On average each year, two students with learning needs were leaving Lourdes Academy in Daytona Beach.
Like many other Catholic schools, Lourdes simply did not have a full-time staff person to help meet the needs of those students. According to principal Stephen Dole, that deficit made it hard for the school to identify the students and the interventions they may need.
“When you think of 225 students you have and out of those 25 are struggling, that is a decent number you have to allocate resources to,” he said.
When Dole learned of the Program for Inclusive Education (PIE) at the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education, he thought the program was just what the school needed. PIE trains teachers to identify students with specific learning needs or diagnosed disabilities and directs them in implementing evidence-based practices that have been proven effective for struggling learners. The 13-month program allows teachers to become certified in exceptional needs and mild intervention.
Lourdes was the first of three Catholic schools in the state to complete the program, which was founded in 2016. In total, 32 schools in 16 states have participated.
Now, there are two teachers certified at Lourdes to deal with mild to moderate interventions, one of whom is dedicated full-time to meet the needs of struggling students.
“We are hopeful to be able to retain the students,” said Dole. “We want them to be on grade level before they graduate. We want to continue to meet the needs of as many students as possible.”
According to the University of Notre Dame, 87 percent of dioceses surveyed report that schools do not have the capacity to meet the needs of students with learning differences. The National Center for Education Statistics also reported in 2017 that 78.4 percent of Catholic schools serve students with mild to moderate special needs.
Overall, 5.1 percent of students in Catholic schools have a diagnosed disability, according to the National Catholic Education Association.
Amy Matzke, director of student support at Lourdes Academy, said that prior to the PIE training the school struggled through trial and error to find the best interventions for those struggling students. Matzke said now she has evidence-based protocols that guide her through her curriculum-based measures that are targeted to each student’s needs.
Matzke leads a team of paraprofessionals who can pinpoint struggling students and determine the best solution for them: intervention, another teacher in the classroom or a small group setting.
“We are able to look at an actual behavior or learning issue,” Matzke said. “We are able to decide why this happened, what we need to do to fix it and implement it right away. “
Lourdes serves 225 students, of whom 145 use the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students. That scholarship is administered by nonprofits like Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog.
The school was chosen as a National Blue Ribbon School in 2006 by the U.S. Department of Education. When the economy weakened in 2008, many parents pulled out their kids, said Dole.
When Dole became principal in 2016, he implemented a higher measure of accountability for students and parents. He brought on a full-time curriculum coordinator to strengthen the curriculum working directly with teachers to implement best practices. Personnel changes were also made.
The school currently includes students from all backgrounds: 50 percent are white; 25 percent Latino; 20 percent black; and 5 percent Asian or mixed race.
Since changes were implemented in the last three years, students have continued to make academic progress, scoring well above the national average of 50 percent on Iowa assessments, according to Dole.
Beyond Lourdes Academy, the mission of PIE is to equip Catholic schools with the culture, foundation and resources for educating all students inclusively while celebrating every student’s diverse and exceptional characteristics, said Christie Bonfiglio, director of PIE and director of professional standards and graduate studies at Notre Dame.
“PIE advocates for empirically-validated instruction so teachers are implementing what works,” Bonfiglio said. “In addition, we train teachers to collect valuable data and to make good decisions based on the evidence.”
Historically, Catholic schools have been slow to open their doors to students with diagnosed learning needs, Bonfiglio added, but “now we are seeing more advocacy and a bigger push to serve academically diverse students in all schools.”
Notre Dame began supporting the mission of inclusion through the Teaching Exceptional Children Program in the summer of 2010. The program was revised over the years to better meet the needs of struggling learners and students with disabilities.
“Nationally, academic diversity is prevalent in all schools,” said Bonfiglio. “That is, there are struggling learners and students with disabilities (diagnosed or not) in the classrooms in Catholic schools across the country. It is our responsibility as Catholic educators to welcome these students and ensure that their needs are met.”
The Marjory Stoneman High School Public Safety Commission wants lawmakers to require Florida’s sheriffs to train public school staffers to carry a gun on campus.
The commission voted unanimously on Thursday to recommend the change to a guardian program that was named after the Stoneman Douglas coach, Aaron Feis, who died protecting students. The program provides law enforcement training to public school staffers, excluding teachers, who want to carry a gun on campus, but current law does not require sheriff’s offices to participate.
So far, only 25 of 67 school districts are participating in the program, according to the Florida Department of Education, and only $9.3 million of the $67 million lawmakers appropriated for the program has been spent.
Charter school officials struggling to comply with the new campus safety mandates are hoping the program will be expanded. Lynn Norman-Teck, executive director of the Florida Charter School Alliance, applauded the recommendation.
“We are pleased that the commission understands the challenges public schools face when trying to meet the safe school mandates,” she said.
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who is a member of the commission, proposed the requirement.
“We need to tell the sheriffs, ‘Do your job,’” he said. “A majority of those sheriffs want to do the Guardian program but fear the Guardian program because of insurance companies.”
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, chairman of the commission, agreed. “We need to be part of the solution and not part of the problem,” he said. “We have to come up with a way to allow these districts that want to do it to get around the sheriff where the sheriff won’t do it.”
After the Parkland shooting in February, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law legislation increasing security measures at schools. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act requires all public schools to hire a school resource officer (SRO), a sheriff’s deputy, or a trained employee to carry a gun on campus.
However, many charter schools, which receive less money than traditional public schools according to a 2017 Florida TaxWatch study, can’t afford SROs. Finances are not the only obstacle. In many areas, there simply are not enough officers to meet the needs of each school.
State Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, said thorough training is paramount. “We want to make sure that training is what it is supposed to be,” she said. “What we want it to be. Anything else would be a recipe for a problem.”
More than half of current public school teachers support school vouchers and charter schools, according to EdChoice’s annual survey of Americans’ views of education.
What’s more, 78 percent of those same teachers surveyed support education savings accounts (ESAs). Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, administers Florida’s Gardiner Scholarship, the nation’s largest education savings account for students with special needs.
“I think it is interesting like the general public, teachers are more supportive of ESAs than the other types of choice programs,” said Michael Shaw, coauthor of the report and research assistant at EdChoice. “It does make me believe that in working with individual students on the ground level they see that students may need additional needs or other services not always provided in a traditional classroom setting.”
The sixth annual Schooling in America survey released today gauged the general public’s opinion on testing, school choice and state accountability systems. The report surveyed 1,803 adults 18 and older. For the first time, the report sought the opinion of 777 public school teachers.
The report investigated four research questions:
- What are parents’ experiences in K-12 education and local schooling?
- What are public school teachers’ professional experiences and preferences in K-12 education?
- How does the general public, as well as teachers and parents, view state accountability systems in K-12 education?
- What are the levels of support and opposition for different educational choice policies?
Overall, the report found broad support for school vouchers, tax credit scholarships and education savings accounts. That includes 54 percent of teachers who support school vouchers, and 57 percent who support charter schools.
Parents were more satisfied with private schools than public schools, while homeschooling received the highest level of parental approval – 86 percent. Even so, there was a 14 percent decrease in parents’ satisfaction with private schools. However, satisfaction with district schools, private schools, and homeschooling all declined since last year. Only charter schools saw an increase in parental satisfaction.
Parents’ experiences in local schooling
Among the current and former school parents surveyed, 40 percent would prefer to send their child to a private school, while 36 percent chose a district public school. Meanwhile, 13 percent would want to send their child to a charter school, and 10 percent prefer homeschooling.
Although parents exhibit a diverse array of schooling preferences, according to the survey, about 82 percent of students attend public district schools. Only 10 percent attend private schools,5 percent attend charter schools, and 3 percent are homeschooled, the report says.
Respondents choosing private school, public charter school, or homeschooling were more likely to “prioritize individual attention, one-on-one class size and student teacher ratio.” Those who prefer district public schools say they provided them some aspect of socialization.
Educational choice polices and reforms
In the six years respondents have been polled on education savings accounts, this year saw the highest level of support, with Americans four times more likely to support the choice option – 74 percent versus the 18 percent who oppose it. Asked why they support ESAs, 28 percent said it was because it gave them better access to schools that have stronger academics and more flexibility and freedom. Those opposed to ESAs stated they did not want to divert funds from public schools and were afraid of fraudulent behavior.
Support for ESAs topped 70 percent for members of nearly every demographic, including race/ethnicity, gender, household income, generation, political party, and region.
“As our survey goes on we are getting more of the millennial parents coming into the fold,” said Shaw. “Those are the kind of generations that are used to more choices in their life from technological advances to general prosperity. As more and more become parents it will be interesting to see if the favorability continues to grow for ESAs.”
Overall there was also strong support for school vouchers — 64 percent, compared to 30 percent opposed. The report notes that since 2013, support for vouchers has “ebbed and flowed between the mid-50s and low-60s.”
As with ESAs, the survey found younger Americans are more likely to support vouchers than seniors. However, many demographic subgroups showed better than 60 percent support for vouchers, including urbanites, African Americans, and current school parents. Current public school teachers and college graduates expressed lower levels of support, although still over 50 percent.
Like school vouchers, those surveyed were favorable of tax-credit scholarships. Two out of three expressed support for those programs compared to about a quarter who oppose them. (Step Up For Students also manages the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students.) Support for tax credit scholarships has remained at the same level since 2013, the report says.
Support for charter schools also remains relatively high and unchanged from 2017, with 61 percent in favor compared to 29 percent who oppose them.
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.