New superintendent's first goal: assess schools
Published: Wednesday, July 9, 2014 at 3:55 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 9, 2014 at 3:55 p.m.
Owen Roberts has stepped into his new role as superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools, and he's ready to dig in.
First on his agenda: getting into classrooms in every public, charter and alternative school to see what he's working with.
"I have to know how the people on the ground are feeling," Roberts, 58, said last Monday.
Roberts, who moved to Gainesville from Lauderdale Lakes after several years with St. Lucie County Schools, is a veteran educator with international experience as a teacher and a student.
Roberts was born and raised in Jamaica, and missed the equivalent of kindergarten and first grade while he was hospitalized for polio.
When he was finally able to attend school, he was already years behind his classmates in the British educational system used in Jamaica.
"I remember struggling with reading," he said.
But exposure to effective teachers who worked to ensure Roberts had opportunities to learn and improve, combined with mentoring, allowed him to reach success.
And that's what every Alachua County public school child needs, he said.
"I know what it means to help kids succeed," Roberts said. "And I think we can do it here."
Student achievement is the ultimate goal in every school and school system, he said, but the district needs to take a hard look at all of its moving parts to be able to fix the problems.
Since he accepted the superintendent's job, Roberts said he's been digging into the data on Alachua County's underperforming schools.
Proposed fixes such as magnet programs and busing are cosmetic, he said.
The key is to make sure each student in the district has equal access to excellent quality of teaching, he said.
One part of that is ensuring the right teacher with the right skill set exists in each classroom, he said.
People may take that to mean their jobs are in danger, but that's not necessarily true, Roberts said. For the most part, he expects teachers will improve with professional development and more resources inside the school.
Roberts also wants to make sure underperforming schools are addressing students' basic needs, like food and socialization, then working to give students hope for success.
"I truly believe that it's possible to solve this in a reasonable time," Roberts said.
For his part, the new superintendent says he plans to get into the community, particularly on the east side of Gainesville, meeting with church and community leaders to find out how to harness students' attention and meet their needs.
He'll sit down with community members to hear their opinions of the school district as a whole, too.
One of his goals for his tenure is to leave Alachua County residents with a great confidence in public schools.
In general, the public's attitude toward public school is negative, and it will take time to change that, he said.
In his first 100 days, Roberts said he plans, mainly, to listen.
He'll visit each school and meet with teachers, school leaders and district officials to get an idea of the culture and attitudes toward teaching and learning, and to find out where the deficiencies lie.
Next, he said he'll need the district to adopt a "laser-like focus" on improving quality of education — and not just in underachieving schools.
Equity isn't achieved until 100 percent of students are afforded the opportunity of an excellent education, he said. "We want to have bright stars in all of our schools."
Roberts said he will fight for Alachua County's public schools to keep their music and arts programs, which have so far remained intact while other districts have eliminated programs due to budget concerns.
As an advocate and lover of the arts, Roberts said he's looking forward to taking in all that Gainesville has to offer.
He's also pleased that he and his wife, Sheila, will be close to their daughter, JoAnn, who is finishing a Ph.D. in molecular biology at the University of Florida College of Medicine.
Both of the Roberts' sons, Jeremy and Jevawn, are engineers.
His three children are a testament to his commitment to education, he said.
Although he's more of a soccer and cricket fan, having grown up in the West Indies, Roberts said he's excited to catch a Gator football game with his children.
After all, he said, "It's part of the culture."
Erin Jester is a Gainesville Sun staff writer.
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