Bob Runcie has led Florida’s Broward County Public Schools (the nation’s sixth-largest district) since 2011, after serving in several leadership positions in the Chicago Public Schools. Few have his experience or knowledge of what’s needed to—as he puts it: “dramatically transform public education in this country.”
Coffee in South Florida in August? Is that even a thing? Only iced coffee until October?
Believe it or not, I’m not a coffee drinker. I get my energy from trying to maintain a healthy diet and rigorous workouts when I can get them in. And, I do drink a lot of water. After all, it is summer in South Florida.
Talk about your education and your background and what led you to this work?
I believe that my story—immigrant, low-income economic status; first in family to graduate from high school; moving on to graduate from one of the most prestigious colleges, Harvard College; and having a successful business career—is a testament to the power of public education to transform lives and realize the American dream.
So, when I was given the chance to work with former Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, when he served as the head of the Chicago Public Schools, I happily joined a team that shared big audacious goals of closing achievement gaps, improving graduation rates, and giving kids the same opportunities I had.
You’ve been leading Broward schools for six years now. What is the biggest area of progress during that time?
Two things: rethinking school discipline and student achievement.
In the 2011-12 school year, after Broward County was identified as the state leader in the number of school-related arrests, Broward County Public Schools set a goal of developing approaches that would keep students in classrooms and out of courtrooms. Through a collaborative effort, starting with the local NAACP chapter and extending to several other key community, law-enforcement, juvenile-justice and social-services organizations, we created a shared vision to improve student conduct and adult responses to student behavior.
Since then, student arrests have declined by 65 percent and behavior referrals have declined by 38 percent. Also, 90 percent of the students in the district’s behavior intervention program, called PROMISE, have not had repeat offenses. We are now recognized as a national model for rethinking student discipline.
The next big area success is our progress on student achievement. In 2016-17, 96 percent of our district schools earned an A, B, or C, with the majority of those schools maintaining or increasing their letter grade. We reduced the number of district schools earning a D or F. Only two schools remained an F compared to 10 in 2016 and 24 in 2015. Graduation rates are at their highest level in many years. We are trending in the right direction. The credit goes to our teachers, administrators, and 32,000 employees who work tirelessly each day to give our kids a quality education experience.
You’ve been outspoken about how you feel that the new Florida school-funding law wrongly pits traditional public schools against charter schools. What do you see as right collaboration between district and charter schools—in terms of both educating kids and sharing resources?
We believe that this legislation is detrimental to students and teachers, violates the Florida Constitution, does not provide an equitable and level playing field for all schools, and the process by which it was approved intentionally lacked public review and input. In addition, it allows the use of local taxpayer dollars to pay for capital improvements to properties owned by private, for-profit entities.
Public education has been hacked. By this I mean that those with access to large amounts of money—private, for-profit interests—are going after the $800 billion that is spent in this country on K-12 education.
All students deserve a high-quality education, regardless of whether they attend an innovative district school or a charter school. The School Board of Broward County authorized the district’s legal challenge of HB 7069, in potential collaboration with other Florida school districts, to ensure a level playing field between innovative district schools and charter schools.
Talk about the role you see our public schools as playing in advancing social justice.
I believe that public schools have a responsibility to promote awareness, increase engagement and foster skill-building around social justice issues. We need to allow our students to use their voices to understand, listen and promote positive change in their communities. Young voices matter!
Summer is the one time of year when superintendents may actually get a few minutes to relax, right? Vacation?
I wasn’t able to squeeze out a family vacation this summer. However, I did have the chance to engage in some great professional development opportunities including the Aspen Institute Program on Education & Society, a leadership development retreat with senior staff, and catching up on my readings. I’m currently reading “Thank You for Being Late” by Thomas Friedman and “Turn the Ship Around” by Retired U.S. Navy Captain L. David Marquet.