OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee School Board took another step in an effort to replace Okeechobee High School and handled some housekeeping matters at the last regular meeting of the year on Tuesday.
The school board approved the hiring of a firm to form a plan to construct a new high school. They considered five options on how to replace OHS. The request for qualifications could bring a firm on board willing to do the design without pay until special funding is received. The board will appeal to the state delegation meeting of legislators on Jan. 6 for support for special state funds for the school.
Board member Jill Holcomb said she was excited that things were happening.
They will advertise for 30 days and consider proposals from architects most likely at the Jan. 17 board meeting.
Lobbyist Patrick Bell was hired last month to speak with legislators directly to support the county effort to replace OHS.
“He has worked with several small county schools and each of them has received special needs funding so he has a great track record,” Mrs. Holcomb said. “I’m very confident he will get us the funding that we need.”
Holcomb admits the district doesn’t have the money or the tax base to pay for a new school. She said the other options would be local loans and she contends the district couldn’t afford to pay them back.
“We need to be listed as a critical need. I think our local representatives have a great reputation and they are very supportive of this project,” she added.
While the district will apply for critical needs funding and host a state committee for another tour of OHS, they also will be lobbying the legislature directly to try and get pressure on the Florida Department of Education to see things their way.
Holcomb said a report showed all of the buildings at OHS need to be razed and replaced. She said it would cost more to renovate than replace the buildings.
“We felt that lobbying directly was the way to go. There is a lot of legitimacy to our cause,” she emphasized.
Other priorities for the state this year is more funds to pay for dual enrollment courses with Indian River State College.
In other business actions the school board learned:
The Okeechobee Freshman Campus was honored by U.S. News and World Report for the 2016 Best High Schools Bronze Award. The school has won this award for two years in a row. Principal Carol Revels said her teachers and staff do a wonderful job and really appreciate this honor.
The Board approved school improvement plans for South Elementary, Yearling Middle and North Elementary School.
South Elementary School continues to focus on climate and culture, parental involvement, better attendance and less referrals.
Principal Tracy Downing said the staff cares about students, believes in them, focus on success, and emphasize the three-year literacy first program.
They have a parental involvement committee that creates events that encourage more parents to visit the school. Some 90 percent of parents have attended student conferences this year. Overall parental involvement has increased by 76 percent. Events held include trick or treat night and ‘Our International home’ night.
Discipline referrals have dropped from 176 last year to 69 so far this year. Counseling and Character Counts are also emphasized. Attendance has not trended in a positive direction. Some 51 students have five or more absences so far this year.
Mrs. Downing said proficiency in English increased from 40-47 percent, with a 14 percent improvement in third, and a 12 percent improvement in fourth grade. Math proficiency went from 38-60 with 25 percent improvement in third and 25 percent in fifth grade. Science increased from 32 to 59 percent.
South is now outperforming 53 percent of elementary schools in the state.
Two years ago they were nearly among the worst 100 elementary schools in the state.
She said faculty and staff dedication and devotion are the reasons for the great improvement.
Principal Tuuli Robinson presented the North Elementary improvement plan that puts students first. Test scores show North beats the state average in most areas. North was a B school last year.
“We have a lot of work to do and we cannot miss a beat.”
One goal is increased communication with parents. Parents took assessments to better understand what children face. They also offer targeted after school tutoring for low performing students.
Yearling Principal Jody Hays has initiated the Capture Kids Hearts Program and focused on parental environment. Yearling scores went down two percent in English, four in math and nine points in science last year. The school earned 46 percent of possible points and a C grade last year.
They have focused on professional development of teachers. Some 97 percent of well-planned lessons deepen the understanding of students, according to the latest studies.
“I want to recruit, retain, and develop quality teachers,” she said.
Yearling has 17 new teachers with nine first year teachers.
Capturing kid’s hearts focused on positive relationship building between students and teachers.
“You must capture a kid’s heart before you can capture their mind,” assistant principal Emily Streelman said. The number of referrals has increased to 371 this year, 58 of students have generated 152 days of out of school suspensions.
Many are minor discipline problems that should not warrant a trip to the office.
“We hope to see these numbers improve.”
They also add positive referrals and phone calls to parents to brag about the child’s positive behavior.
“It’s about a change in behavior and talking to students. There is a reason they misbehave and if we show them we care that will help,” Streelman added.
The board appointed Jill Holcomb to the Children’s Services Council.
The employee awards banquet is Jan. 20. The next school board meeting is Jan. 17 at 6 p.m.
The Board honored Jennifer Ellis, a fourth grade teacher at South Elementary with the Golden Mouse Award, for use of technology in her classroom. She was not able to attend due to illness.
M. Jane Stough, a fifth grade teacher at Central, was honored upon her retirement.
Seven of ten local schools received perfect audits this year.
Charles M. Murphy is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News