Palm Beach, Fla.: Working Together for Students

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Educators in Palm Beach County, Fla., face the same challenges as their counterparts in many states—a governor with a penchant for blaming teachers and their unions for everything that ails schools, huge budget cuts, and misguided ideas for how to reform schools and evaluate teachers. But in their own county, at least, those educators have found ways to work cooperatively and productively with all the adults in the system in a way that has brought positive results to students in one of the state's largest school systems.

AFT president Randi Weingarten saw some of those successes firsthand when she visited Palm Beach County on Aug. 30 as part of the AFT's "Making a Difference Every Day" tour. Along with Palm Beach County Teachers Association president Debra Wilhelm and FEA president Andy Ford, who is an AFT vice president, Weingarten toured two schools, met with the district superintendent and school board chair, and spoke at the local union's representative assembly.

Lake Worth High School

Under classic South Florida tropical thunderstorms, the day's first stop was Lake Worth High School. An attractive Spanish-mission style building of stucco walls and a red tile roof, the school had struggled in past years and was even slated for demolition at one point to make way for a new highway off ramp. But today, with an enthusiastic faculty and an energetic new principal on the job, the staff are excited to continue the school's progress. "We are all working together here to make the community better and make it a place where people want to work and live," Wilhelm says.

Randi Weingarten at Lake Worth HS

Randi Weingarten visits with a high school senior, along with one of the preschoolers, in the early childhood academy at Lake Worth Community High School.


The 2,700-student school features six academies: aerospace science/Air Force JROTC, criminal justice, culinary, drafting and design, early childhood teaching, and medicine and allied health professions. The academies prepare their students to enter the workforce, some with nationally recognized industry certifications, or higher education. The school has partnerships with a number of local community and four-year colleges.

Weingarten and the other visitors stop in the medical academy, where students talk about what they like about school and their career aspirations (ranging from surf videographer to brain surgeon); the early childhood academy, where the 12th graders have designed the curriculum and are implementing it with the young children of school staff members; the JROTC program, which features state-of-the-art flight simulators; and the culinary academy, with its gleaming commercial kitchen for students to learn new skills. "As long as you prepare and focus, you guys can do anything you want to do," Weingarten tells a classroom of medical academy students. "You have a fantastic school, fantastic teachers and a fantastic principal."

Later, during an interview with a local TV station, Weingarten singles out two reasons for the school's success: adults working together on behalf of kids, rather than pointing fingers at each other; and a rich and engaging curriculum.

The Lake Worth visit ends with a lunch prepared by students from the culinary academy.

Okeeheelee Middle School

The second school visit of the day takes Weingarten to a Spanish-language immersion middle school, where students learn everything from art to U.S. history in Spanish. The 1,350-student school is part of the International Spanish Academies, a network with formal links to Spanish government that includes almost 100 schools in the United States. Okeeheelee is the network's longest-running middle school program.

Randi Weingarten at Okeeheelee MS

A group of dance students at Okeeheelee Middle School teach Weingarten some new dance moves.


Principal David Samore says the school builds on the idea that students learn languages best when they are exposed to them early in life. Waiting until high school, as most students do, makes it much more difficult. "When you wait so long," he says, "learning a language is like studying an insect under glass."

The visitors stop in a number of classrooms, some run by teachers who have come from Spain. Among the highlights are the school's impressive array of arts programs, including an art gallery of student work, a dance studio and a black box theater. In the school's library, students in the chorus and dance programs perform for the visitors. The female dancers even coax Weingarten out of her chair for an impromptu salsa dance lesson (pictured at left).

"You guys are awesome," Weingarten says. She takes the opportunity to ask the students why arts programs are so important at a time when they are often one of the first things cut as school systems face deficits. "Dance is a study, just like math and reading. We're learning culture along with the dances," one student says. "You learn a lot in these classes without even knowing it. It gives you a way to express your feelings," another says.

Doug Dudek, a math teacher and the local union's lead representative at the school, jumps in with his own answer. "These students have a confidence that other kids in my classes don't have," he says.

Weingarten's day ends with remarks to a packed hall of building representatives and members at the local union headquarters. She praises them for their good work in schools despite tough economic and political conditions in the state, and urges them to continue fighting for educators' voice and economic dignity. [Dan Gursky/photos by John Lewis]

August 31, 2011

In the News

Lake Worth High School shines, CBS 12 News