I met Steven Larson last year. He was fresh in town and was stirring up some partnership conversations in Pompano. This former Assistant Superintendent in Hillsboro, Oregon had moved his wife and 3 kids to South Florida to be closer to family. He took on the role of Principal of Pompano Elementary, the last failing school in the city, tarnished by its last 3 years “F” ratings.
Steven Larson rolled in with a wishful philosophy of “arms locked”, and decided to unpack the toolkit by asking his community to join with him in supporting “his kids” and their families. Little did he know… Broward shows up when you ask. So we all watched this boyishly-handsome gentleman address a room full of leading decision-makers he had, to his own surprise, brought together. His approachable passion for his work came through and he made some new friends that day…myself included.
One other such friend is Pompano Fire Chief John Jurgle, who immediately responded to the call. He and his battalion started reading with kids once a week. They also give awards for great attendance and performance, but most importantly Chief Jurgle stands side-by-side with Mr. Larson as an anchor partner, opening doors and fielding issues together. Chief Jurgle says Wednesday’s are his day to read at Pompano, and it’s his favorite day of the week.
Mr. Larson has since mobilized his “Neighborhood United” movement and created a steering committee of dedicated partners and volunteers. Though he has a place for everyone who wants to join him to create a safe haven, being heroes/mentors, and sharing arts and culture, he has zeroed in on one hard-core BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal): Pompano will achieve 100% reading proficiency.
Considering that 75% of Pompano’s students were not reading at grade level last year when Mr. Larson took the helm, this goal is indeed audacious. It is also a goal every kid deserves. 95% of Pompano’s kids live in poverty, but at he likes to remind us, 100% are willing and able to learn.
A year later, grade level reading is up to 39%. For the first time in 3 years, Pompano Elementary is a “D”, and the city of Pompano has “no F schools”. This might not sound like much of an achievement to most and frankly, Mr. Larson was hoping for much more too. But it’s a start and it’s created some much needed momentum, not to mention neighborhood and staff pride.
I ran into Mr. Larson again recently, and with that same fire in his eyes he said, “you gotta come by and see what’s going on.” So I did.
Together with two principals who had also stopped by to learn more, we were filled with the new palpable spirit of this school. There were chalk messages on the floor, and Motown music playing in the courtyard where EVERY kid and teacher dances on their way to class. Fist-bumps are regular fare between principal and students. He beamed as he revealed the literacy-dedicated classroom for volunteers to work with kids individually, filled with rich reading materials, signs and tools.
Principal Larson makes no bones about the issues they have to face at his school, or barriers WE have in creating lasting change in schools like Pompano Elementary. One of the coolest things he’s done lately extends beyond the walls of his school. Together with a local church, he’s setting up an extension location, Pompano Elementary Auxiliary Resource Center. This will meet families where they live and during days/times school isn’t open. Staff, reading materials, computers, parent classes and events will soon be another on-ramp to the community-school footprint.
Pompano Elementary now has 100 volunteers visiting weekly and with a goal to get to 250 every week. Steven Larson is unpretentious, resolute, capable and relentlessly hopeful. I know he will get to his goal of 250.
BTW’s about Steven Larson:
- He’s vegan…most of the time, unless he’s training for marathons.
- He set’s realistic academic goals for his own children (no crazy overachiever pressure).
- His staff just nominated him for principal of the year.
- And, he really believes the progress so far has very little to do with him. Or maybe he’s just smart enough to say that… which is just as important.
- Picture above: Principal Larson showing off his school to other principals.