Officials: To improve SLHS, stability is key

By ALEXA MILAN

SANFORD — It’s no secret that within the walls of its pristine facilities, Southern Lee High School has faced its share of challenges. The preliminary ABC/AYP results for Lee County revealed Southern Lee was the county’s only school not to achieve growth in the 2009-2010 year. Since opening its doors in 2005, the school has seen a high faculty and administration turnover.

According to Lee County Schools human resources department, Southern Lee had 11 certified vacancies out of 82 certified teaching positions as of June 30. Sanford resident Mark Stewart’s son graduated from Southern Lee in 2008, but only one of his senior-year teachers remained in 2010.

But rather than getting discouraged, the school’s struggles have motivated Principal Bonnie Almond to introduce some new initiatives for the 2010-2011 year that she hopes will turn the school around.

“In any organization, when you have major change, it’s difficult,” Almond said. “People fear the unknown. Because there has been such turnover in administration, it’s difficult to solidify some consistency and a clear structure.”

Almond became Southern Lee’s principal in the second semester of the 2009-2010 year and has spent the past six months analyzing what is working for the school and what isn’t. One of the first things she noticed was how the teacher turnover rate affected the students, something that has been of concern to some Southern Lee parents. Stewart’s daughter’s honors pre-calculus teacher left the school in the middle of the semester.

“This type of learning environment is disruptive to all students, but especially those juniors and seniors preparing to apply to college,” Stewart said. “The constant turnover among principals and teachers has been discouraging and perplexing.”

Almond said she agrees that the turnover has had a negative impact on students, and she thinks it had a direct effect on the school’s growth scores.

“When there is significant change, it can create trust and commitment issues,” Almond said. “I think the inconsistency had everything to do with what took place last year.”

But Almond emphasized that she isn’t going anywhere, and she said she is committed to finding ways to engage students and to make Southern Lee a place where teachers want to stay.

One initiative that will take effect this year is the introduction of the 1:1 laptop program at Southern Lee, which Almond said she thinks will be a benefit to both students and teachers. The response to the program she has heard from students and teachers so far has been positive.

“It’s going to change how our teachers teach,” Almond said. “We’re looking to actively engage students for the whole 90 minutes. We’re really going to be looking at the quality of the teaching and learning going on in this building.”

The school will use benchmark data throughout the year to evaluate how students are responding to the 1:1 program. Almond has been interviewing potential new teachers in recent weeks, several of whom were drawn to the school because of its new programs.

“When we tell everyone about the technology initiative, these young teachers really want to come here,” Almond said.

The focus on technology will be furthered by a new Mac lab and an enhanced STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program. Topics of study in the STEM program will include robotics, manufacturing, alternative energy and architectural design and construction. Trevor Bradien, a teacher in the STEM program, said he is grateful for the new technological opportunities following a year that had some frustrations.

“I think Bonnie has a lot on her plate as far as trying to handle the challenges of being principal at a school with a lot of turnover,” Bradien said. “But I have a high degree of interest in seeing how we’re going to flesh out STEM in our school system.”

The school will also be working to strengthen relationships with students and rebuild the trust that Almond feels has been lost to a degree because of the high turnover. In previous years, four guidance counselors advised more than 1,100 students. But beginning this year, a new adviser/advisee program will ensure that students receive more individual attention.

“Every certified teacher is going to become an adviser, and we’ll meet with our students every three weeks,” Almond said. “We want to create a relationship so the students know they have someone to go to.”

Each adviser will have about 10-15 student advisees, and the first meeting will also include parents. Advisers will map out goals with their students and guide them down the right path to make sure they get the most out of their education. They will support their students in working toward their goals, whether it means pursuing a college education or securing a job. Almond said she hopes forming these relationships early on in a student’s high school career will strengthen their education and improve the dropout rate.

“Statistics show that if a child can have a positive relationship with someone in the school, their chances of graduating are so much higher,” said Chris Dossenbach, a Southern Lee English teacher who will oversee the adviser/advisee program. “They can come to us if they’re having a bad day or having scheduling issues or having issues at home. It’s all about building positive relationships with students.”

Almond said she is afraid amid the negativity surrounding the school’s turnover and growth scores, people have forgotten about the positives of Southern Lee. In her time at the school, she has seen students with a strong desire to learn and teachers who care about them. Dossenbach said he has a lot of faith in Southern Lee’s students and teachers, which is why the growth results were disheartening.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to make any excuses,” Dossenbach said. “It was heartbreaking because I know how hard we did work. But I think this school with Bonnie’s leadership is going to be exciting. For the first time I feel like we’re headed in the right direction and we can see the bigger picture and what we need to do to get there.”

Stewart said given the huge financial investment Southern Lee was for Lee County, he has been concerned by the school’s under-performance. But he is hopeful that Almond’s new initiatives for the coming year could turn things around for Southern Lee and give students like his daughter the best possible education.

“We fully support Mrs. Almond and her education initiatives and are optimistic that the students will receive the quality education they richly deserve,” Stewart said.

Almond said there is always an adjustment period when a school gets a new principal, but she is committed to Southern Lee and doesn’t plan on going anywhere any time soon. She is also confident that with hard work and dedication, Southern Lee will overcome its struggles and emerge a stronger school.

“We’ve got a lot of growing to do, and sometimes with growing comes growing pains,” Almond said. “But I hope these new initiatives help our students find success and set goals with teachers they can achieve collaboratively.”