Back To School: New Campuses, Under-crowding and School Grades

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Palm Beach County public schools open on Monday. Meanwhile, the many upgrades to Boca Raton’s public school system are on schedule.

Phase 1 includes the temporary move this year of Verde Elementary School students to the temporary campus next to Don Estridge Middle, near the Spanish River Library. By next year, those students are scheduled to be attending a new Verde—west of Town Center Mall—that will have added middle school grades.

After the Verde kids return, Phase 2 begins. Students from Addison Mizner Elementary will take their place at the temporary school. Frank Barbieri, the school board member who represents Boca Raton, told me that the new Addison Mizner should be ready in time for the 2021 academic year or early in 2022. Like Verde, it will have sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

The temporary school campus for students at Verde and Addison Mizner (Photo by Randy Schultz)

Phase 3 will be construction of a permanent elementary school next to Estridge. It should have roughly 900 spaces, and the school district will design it to accommodate middle school grades if the money is available and the need presents itself. Barbieri said it would open during the 2022-23 academic year.

From this construction spurt, financed mostly by the 2016 sales tax surcharge, will come other benefits. Building the new Verde will free up 20 concrete portable classrooms. Four will go to Calusa Elementary in northwest Boca to relieve crowding at that popular school. The other 16 will go to Spanish River High School. The added capacity will allow the district to shift students there and relieve crowding at Boca Raton High School.

The old Verde has been demolished. So have homes the district bought on Southwest 12th Avenue next to Addison Mizner. That extra land, Barbieri said, will give the district a “better parcel” to design the new school, which will be two stories. Verde will be one story. At 20 acres, that campus is nearly double the size of Addison Mizner, even with the extra lots.

Barbieri said residents who live near Verde worried about traffic with the new, larger school, just as they worry now. He told me, however, that the design will allow as many as 200 cars to stack on the campus without backing up on onto Verde Trail.

Demolition at Addison Mizner Elementary School (Photo by Randy Schultz)

The district will hold an open house Saturday for Verde students at the temporary campus. All the chain link fence might put off some parents, but the district did a remarkable job getting the school ready on time. And it beats housing Mizner and Verde students on the Verde campus during construction of the new Mizner.

When both schools open, the added grades at Verde and Addison Mizner will relieve crowding at Boca Raton Middle School and elsewhere. Capacity will remain an issue if the city continues to draw young families, but this building burst should bring much progress. Don’t credit Tallahassee. Credit voters who approved the sales tax plan.

And the Delray Beach issue

In Boca Raton, the problem has been that many schools are overcrowded. It’s the opposite problem in Delray Beach. Of the city’s eight public schools, all but one is under capacity—some dramatically so.

According to school district figures, Carver Middle is at roughly 60 percent of capacity. Pine Grove Elementary has about two-thirds of the students it could handle. Orchard View and Banyan Creek elementary schools are 25 percent under—and Banyan Creek is an A-rated school. Couple that with the latest round of grades, when only Banyan Creek got that A. Most schools in Delray Beach got a C, and their trend lines are down.

Delray Beach Commissioner Ryan Boylston

Those are the kinds of numbers that make district administrators think of closing schools—though there has been no talk at this point. Combine that with the tepid 2019 school grades for Delray Beach schools, and you can see why City Commissioner Ryan Boylston last week convened seven of the eight principals for a meeting on how to improve things. The Carver principal had a scheduling conflict.

Boylston described the meeting as “great. I was so impressed by their excitement.” Boylston previously served on the city’s education board. He wanted ideas.

Some are beyond the city’s reach. All the principals spoke of the need for more staff, particularly to help the most at-risk students. That’s something for the district.

But Boylston said he also heard how the city could improve its after-school program. The roughly 200 students go now to the city’s community center. It would be better, the principals said, to keep them on campus.

Getting them home, though, would require a bus. So Atlantic High’s principal, Tara Delligrotti Ocampo, said one from her campus might be available.

Boylston also wants the city to be more engaged with students and parents outside of the schools themselves. The Delray Rocks youth football team is one of the city’s most popular recreation programs. Boylston would like a principal or city officials to be at games, talking to parents about the importance of education. “We need to be out there, even getting to parents before their children are old enough for school.”

In addition, Boylston said, “I will be going to the commission for money.” He would like the city to create a fund to match contributions from the public for education. “It would be a lot more persuasive to ask someone for $50,000 if they knew the city was going to match it.”

Boylston added, “We can’t do major stuff yet.” Delray Beach first must show the district that the city is serious. But his goal is to make public schools the draw for Delray Beach that they are for Boca Raton.

How are we grading schools?

Photo by Jessica Ruscello

In writing about education, I have noted the oddities— and that’s being kind—in Florida’s school grading system. Here’s an example:

Palm View Elementary is in Palmetto, about 40 miles south of Tampa. For the past academic year, the school’s grade jumped from a D to an A. No school in Manatee County showed more improvement. Yet as the Florida Phoenix reported, 60 percent of Palm View’s students couldn’t pass the state reading exam. Huh?

The answer is that the grading formula gives more points for growth than for achievement. Many of Palm View’s students come from poor families and started school behind children from affluent households. Growth rates last year outpaced achievement and scored lots of points, so Palm View got the higher grade.

It may interest Delray Beach officials that Palm View this year will become a Woz Pathways school. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak created the program that allows students to choose from five academic “pathways,” including engineering, drone repair, coding, cybersecurity and mobile development. Many philanthropists have involved themselves in education. There could be resources for Delray Beach schools from beyond this area.

Communications tower update

As expected, a lawsuit has challenged the county commission’s approval of a 400-foot communications tower on the edge of Boca Raton’s municipal golf course.

The litigation comes from Glades Road Self Storage, which adjoins the tower site to the south. The owner claims that the tower will hurt the value of that land and a vacant parcel east of where the tower would stand. Boca Raton would build the tower and share it with the county for their public safety radio systems.

CORRECTION

I wrote Tuesday that Palm Beach County School Board member Karen Brill had filed to run next year for the District 5 seat on the county commission. I said Brill is term-limited. But school board members, unlike commissioners, don’t have term limits. Brill has been on the board since 2010.

I asked why she wants to make the switch, since she has such a safe seat. Brill easily won reelection in 2014 and won a new term without opposition last year.

Brill said her interests have broadened beyond education. Her priority would be to protect the Agricultural Reserve Area, which District 5 includes. In 1999, voters approved a bond issue to buy land and preserve farming in the reserve. Previous commission, however, have chipped away at those protections.

There’s also timing. District 5 incumbent Mary Lou Berger is term-limited. Like Berger, Brill is a Democrat. No Republican has represented the district since the commission went to single-member districts in 1990. The Democratic primary will be the main event. No other candidate has filed, but commission seats don’t come open very often. Brill likely will have primary opponents.

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