In your more than 30 years in public education you have served in numerous roles including Superintendent, Deputy Superintendent, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction, Director of School improvement and Teacher Training, Principal and second grade teacher. Of all the positions you have held in public education which has been the most rewarding and why?
While I can honestly say that every position that I have held in education has been rewarding, being the principal of a new school has definitely been my most unforgettable opportunity. Given an architectural drawing of a building and told to make changes and design my dream school was an exhausting but incredible task.
Knowing what I wanted my school to look like, sound like and feel like, along with my vision for the experiences I wanted for all students every day, helped me to design what proved to be a great place to learn and a great place to work. Ordering everything from the furniture to the classroom libraries to the garbage cans and microwave for the teacher’s lounge, there were many long days and long nights of planning. Many lists made and many boxes checked. The most rewarding part of opening a school is the opportunity to hire every faculty and staff member. Hiring people who share your vision and expectations for what students can and will achieve, makes it easy to hold people accountable and ensure that every student has a great teacher and the opportunity to achieve at high levels.
Lake County School District is considered a Model PLC at Work® District, and quality professional learning is an integral part of your district framework for teacher effectiveness and student success. What does the PLC at Work® District designation mean for your district in terms of student achievement?
Adult learning is key to increasing student learning so implementing the PLC process in every Lake County school has been critical to establishing and supporting a common vision for teaching and learning. Our goal was to end the educational lottery where student achievement is contingent upon the teacher a student receives. “Every student deserves a great teacher, not by chance, but by design,” a quote by Doug Fisher, continues to be the mantra of our school and district leaders.
Weekly teacher common planning time is guided by the four PLC questions to help teachers plan based on what students need to know and be able to do and then assess how they will know each student has mastered the skill or standard. Teachers intentionally plan for intervention and acceleration time to address the PLC questions, “What will you do when they don’t learn it?” and “What will you do if they already know it?”
Intentional planning leads to intentional teaching that includes ongoing monitoring of each student’s progress towards mastery of the standard. This cyclical process ensures that students receive “just in time” support leading to higher levels of student achievement. The PLC process also supports our formula for learning, QI + T = LC - quality instruction plus additional time when needed, will equal learning that is constant. As a model PLC district, we strive to be a learning organization at all levels; being learners to grow learners.
When you took the helm as Lake County Schools Superintendent in January 2017, the district’s graduation rate for the 2015-16 school year was 78.1% and today, the district boasts a 90.6% graduation rate. What key initiatives has the district implemented that contribute to the continued increase in the graduation rate for Lake County Schools?
One of the first things we did to increase graduation rates was to add a position at each high school responsible for identifying students not on track to graduate and developing an individual graduation plan for each student. We titled the position, Graduation Facilitator. These individuals, with support from the guidance counselors and school administrators, create a list of every student as they enter high school. They determine who is not “on track” and meet with students and parents to discuss unmet graduation requirements and a plan for their success. They ensure students enroll in credit recovery opportunities and/or enroll in ACT and SAT prep programs. They match students with mentors and tutors and track their progress throughout their high school years. By their senior year, schools can tell you by name who has not met their graduation requirements, and what each student needs to graduate. All schools are laser focused on the needs of each student and there is a collective commitment, and mission, to make sure that every student crosses the graduation stage.
What is an innovative/impactful initiative in your school district that you are most proud of during your tenure as a superintendent?
One of our strategic goals has been to increase and enhance career and technical education (CTE) opportunities at every middle and high school. While school closures and other impacts of COVID reduced testing opportunities, the district continues to have about 60 percent of our students graduating each year having earned one or more industry certifications. Currently the district has 74 CTE programs spread across our secondary schools and we have expanded opportunities for programs in construction, HVAC, aviation, criminal justice and emergency management over the past few years. Community support for these programs has been tremendous and a key component of their success.
This year, in partnership with Insight Credit Union, we opened a student branch and financial literacy laboratory at Lake Minneola High School. Our construction academy at Leesburg High School started with 35 students in 2018 and today, has over 300 students enrolled. The school just completed its third home in partnership with Habitat for Humanity and students are finding high wage jobs during the summer and after graduating high school. Our aviation programs include an unmanned drone program as well as two academies in partnership with Embry Riddle Aeronautical University where students are earning dual enrollment credits and have the opportunity to earn their private pilot’s license. Our teaching academy at Tavares High School increases in enrollment each year and we offer incentives in hopes that these students will return to a Lake County classroom upon graduating from a college of education. Every year, we are expanding opportunities for students to prepare them for work and/or college. In addition to CTE programs, the District has expanded the Advanced Internal Certificate of Education or AICE Program to three high schools as well as their feeder middle schools and this year, we graduated our first class of AICE students at Leesburg High School. In 2022, we will open our first IB program at Tavares High School. Given our mission to prepare students for postsecondary and/or the workforce, these programs certainly help us to achieve our mission while creating engaging and relevant learning opportunities for our students.
What do you feel is the most challenging barrier at this time in meeting the educational needs of students in your district?
The thing that keeps me up most at night is the reality of the teacher and employee shortages that we all have been facing. In spite of our best recruitment and retention efforts, we continue to see people leave the profession in this growing competitive job market. However, what I have come to realize is that it does no good to worry or complain about what is happening. I am better off to invest my time and energy finding opportunities. Opportunities to think differently about how to meet the needs of our students and our employees. Opportunities to think differently about how we “do” school.
What do you feel is the most pressing issue facing public education as a whole?
Throughout the year, I hold teacher focus groups giving teachers and employees the opportunity to talk and for me to listen. Student attendance was a topic that came up at every focus group this year. High school teachers and principals expressed their frustration about the growing number of students who come to school late or not at all. The reason they believe student apathy for school has grown since the pandemic is the opportunities they have to work making education less important. Working at night, students may be less apt to get up and be at school at 7:00 a.m. So, we started thinking of ways to change our delivery model to better address student needs and growing teacher concerns. In August of 2023, we plan to open a flexible day high school program in collaboration with Lake Sumter State College and Lake Technical College. This school will offer both face-to-face and online classes from 8 a.m. – 8 p.m., giving students the opportunity to select a schedule that best meets their needs. High school teachers will be able to earn extra money by working after their regular contracted day and the school will offer both academic and workforce dual enrollment opportunities.
This is one example of how we must adapt and find solutions to the challenges we face today in public education. I often remind my team, and myself, to keep fighting the good fight. Our kids are worth it.
If you had the ability to change one thing in the realm of public education – what would that be?
In my opinion, many practices in education have existed for hundreds of years that make little sense today. However, try to change them and you will face relentless criticism. If I could make one needed change without fear of an uprising, I would eliminate the averaging of grades in an A-F scale and change practices to support a standards mastery approach to better and more specifically communicate student learning.
I tried to make this shift once as a principal and while teacher buy-in took some time, we made immense progress only to be met with strong backlash from parents and the owner of the local skating rink who didn’t know how he would give out A-B Honor Roll passes to students each quarter. So, we stayed in the past.
I believe that a system of grading and accountability that focuses on monitoring student progress toward mastery of their grade level or course rather than a letter that really doesn’t tell anyone anything, would increase both student and teacher accountability and performance outcomes. Until someone gives me a magic wand to make the change and do so effectively in every school and in every classroom, we are focusing on training and building teacher understanding and buy-in for needed changes in grading practices including the importance of allowing student “redo’s and retakes” by focusing on the cohort of the willing. However, before my time is done, I hope that these new practices will replace tradition and become a way of work for the next 100 years.
Outside of being a superintendent, what is something that your colleagues may not know about you that you would like to share.
One thing you might not know about me is that I love the outdoors. Give me a boat on the water or a four-wheeler in the woods and I’m in heaven. I enjoy bird hunting and fishing and on the weekends, even the rain won’t keep me inside if I can stand it. You might also not know that I have my Dad’s dry sense of humor and people always think I’m serious but, that is rarely the case.
Individual(s) you admire most for their positive impact on public education:
I genuinely mean it when I say that I most admire my 66 colleagues across Florida for the positive impact they make every day to public education. There is no group of people I know of who have worked harder and been more committed to improving teaching and learning for every child and every educator during the most challenging of times.
I’m constantly in awe of their knowledge and their persistence to make things better for the children and the communities they serve.