In less than three years at the helm of the Broward County public schools, Superintendent Robert Runcie has ushered in a new era of collaboration and cooperation between the Florida district and what some say is one of the biggest threats to its financial viability: the charter school community.
That attitude is a far cry from the historically contentious relationship between the 262,000-student Broward County district and the 95 charter schools that operate there, said Robert Haag, the president of the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, who nominated Mr. Runcie for inclusion in Leaders to Learn From.
Since the first charter school opened in Broward County, “it has always been us versus them,” said Mr. Haag. While charter schools in Florida must be approved by the local school board to open, they compete with the regular public schools for students and per- pupil funding. But when Mr. Runcie took over the post in October 2011, instead of shutting out the charter community, he called for a summit to gather charter school leaders in one room with district officials to discuss, point by point, the concerns of both sides.
In one meeting, Mr. Haag said, “it all changed.”
“There was no arguing,” he said. “It was all saying, ‘How do we fix this?’ ”
That summit became the first of thrice-yearly meetings between the groups that have helped both charter and district officials work more closely and efficiently, said Mr. Haag.
As a result of the meetings, charter school leaders now have access to the district’s email system, speeding up communication with the district, charter school principals meet regularly with district staff members to keep updated on accountability requirements, and the paperwork and administrative processes have become more streamlined for greater efficiency.
“It’s not an us-versus-them, but how do we work together to complement what’s going on in the district,” Mr. Runcie said. “The strategy I have is, look, these are our kids. They’re in these public schools. We need to make sure that whatever school they’re in, it’s a high-quality school.”
Mr. Runcie’s work in the 403,000-student Chicago district, where working with charters has become the norm, may have prepared him to take a different tack from that of his predecessors, Mr. Haag said.
The 52-year-old superintendent previously served as chief of staff to the board of education, a chief area instructional officer, the chief administrative officer, and the chief information officer in Chicago under now-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
It’s not just the charter school community with which Mr. Runcie has worked to repair relations. His first move as superintendent in Broward County was to hold town hall meetings to help repair the district’s battered public image.
Eight months before Mr. Runcie took office, the Florida Supreme Court released a scathing grand jury report that found the school board riddled with corruption and mismanagement. Two school board members were charged with taking bribes from contractors. (One was sentenced to three years in prison while the other was scheduled to face trial last month.)
During the community meetings, Mr. Runcie listened to residents’ concerns, said Patricia Good, the chairwoman of the Broward school board.
“He believes that in order to have positive outcomes, you need to communicate effectively throughout the district, whether it’s internal or external,” she said.
Mr. Runcie has also taken steps to reach out to the Broward Teachers’ Union, which has had a similarly strained relationship with district officials in recent years.
Now, said Sharon Glickman, the president of the union, she and the superintendent meet about every other week.
“We don’t always agree all the time, but we do want to work together,” she said.
In addition to strengthening relationships with education partners, Mr. Runcie said his biggest focus has been on closing the achievement gap and providing a high-quality education for every student in Broward County.
Mr. Runcie, who immigrated to the United States from Jamaica as a child and was raised by parents whose highest level of schooling was 3rd grade, saw firsthand the opportunities that education opened to students like him.
“Education was and still is the foundation to develop the capacity to participate in the U.S. and the global economy,” he said. “Without that, you have limited options.”
The first in his family to attend college, Mr. Runcie went on to graduate from Harvard University. He completed a master’s degree in business administration from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., before beginning his career as the president and founder of a for-profit management-consulting and technology-service company—an experience that the Broward school board hoped had prepared him to straighten out the district’s finances and address looming budget cuts.
Looking at achievement-gap data, Superintendent Runcie said one of the first things he noticed was the large number of students being arrested for misdemeanor offenses they committed in school, such as throwing spitballs, getting into shoving matches, or cursing—and in particular, the disproportionate number of arrests of African-American males. (About 40 percent of the district enrollment is African-American, and 50 percent is white. Thirty percent of the district is Hispanic.)
That realization, reinforced through meetings with Marsha Ellison, the president of the Fort Lauderdale-Broward County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, prompted Mr. Runcie to pull together a committee that included Ms. Ellison, the Broward County sheriff, the Fort Lauderdale police chief, and representatives from the juvenile-justice system to rewrite the district’s zero-tolerance discipline policy.
Now, instead of meting out automatic suspensions and expulsions, which Mr. Runcie said merely made students fall behind in school and did little to improve student behavior, administrators evaluate every incident and send students to an intervention program, where they receive counseling and support services specific to their situations.
Then, when the students are integrated back into the classroom, they receive support from caseworkers for up to 60 days, Mr. Runcie said.
The district also provided professional development for principals and school administrators to implement the changes.
The new policies went into effect at the beginning of this school year, and already 700 students have gone through the intervention program, Mr. Runcie said, with only 28 repeat offenders. Expulsions and suspensions are down 60 percent from last year, and arrests have decreased by 50 percent.
“We’re having a huge immediate impact,” Mr. Runcie said. “This is absolutely the way to go.”
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A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 2014 edition of Education Week