Peek into a classroom and you may see students learning their letters while in the next room they’re learning how to multiply. Welcome to Pompano Beach Elementary (PBE) where, whether they know it or not, these students are on the front lines of a revolution and the battlefield is their future. And they’ve got lots of support.
Much of what you see on your tour can be traced back to the first meeting of what became the Neighborhood United Project where community leaders were challenged to become levers for student achievement.
It was in the conference room at PBE in 2015 that Principal Steve Larson and area leaders like Ric Green of the Chamber of Commerce, local business owner Jay Gahnem, Head Start teacher Phil Schulte, consultant and philanthropist Roy Rogers and Gwen Leys of the Kiwanis met to brainstorm ways to change the world, specifically for kids at PBE.
“Most people know this, but it’s worth stating,” said Michael Matos, special education teacher. “Our school has a minority majority with nearly 100 percent living in poverty. Our kids need more from us. People just see the exterior without realizing these kids are often the protectors, the providers and often the scapegoats in their families, and sometimes they are not even ten years old.”
Dedicated to the cause
Mr. Matos, at 6’8” represents a very large success story with a story that mirrors his students’. Growing up in urban Pennsylvania, Mr. Matos learned to see life as a test, and he encourages his students to excel against all odds.
“I feel like I am called to pass on what I received. I can show my students they don’t have to be the product of their environment or of a generational curse.” Mr. Matos is just one of the twenty-five committed, passionate teachers on staff at PBE.
Instructional Coach Shamell Foster, a long time Pompano resident, sees her work as a calling from God. “This is what He made me to do,” she said. “I’m from a migrant background, so my family went up on the seasons every year. I’m the first of my grandmother’s grandchildren to go to college, and I studied business administration. Then I started subbing and thought, I can do this all day. I love this.”
Ms. Foster explained, “I followed my mentor to Pompano Beach Elementary and immediately felt like I was home. I am convinced that every child can learn. This is where I can serve my purpose because this is where we lay the foundation for our students.” With teachers like this, it easy to be convinced there’s nothing this school, and its students, can’t achieve.
Committed to reading
Ask Mr. Larson what his goal is for the school and his answer is immediate and succinct- “to change the world.” Walk into his office and you’ll see the first step of the revolution is achieving 100 percent grade-level reading. That’s where the community has made a radical difference with Larson crediting City Commissioner Moss and Fire Chief Jurgle as among the first to step forward.
“At first I was cautious of committing to volunteer every week because of my schedule and time demands, however, the second I stepped into the classroom, the kids ran up to hug me and I fell in love.” said Chief Jurgle. “When I told my staff and firefighters what I was doing, it just snowballed into a tremendous outpouring of volunteers. I have had the honor and privilege of helping sick and injured people throughout my career. Other than when I worked as a firefighter on shift work, I have never felt more satisfied than when I get to read to ‘my’ class.” Now hardly a day goes by that students don’t see a Pompano Beach fire fighter there to volunteer.
Making authentic connections
Not everyone is a volunteer reader and this is where the story and vision starts to expand. “We look for unique and authentic ways for people to get connected,” said Principal Larson. “There’s probably a way to take their skills, what they like to do, and use it to raise student achievement.”
Take it from community member Ray Doucett.
“I have always wanted to teach karate for free to any kids who couldn’t afford it. I talked to Principal Larson at an event, and within two weeks we had the program funded. The Rotary donated uniforms, Kennesaw Juice gave us juice, Keith and Associates provided granola bars, Imperial Point donated a first aid kit, and Nando Shirts gave us our T-shirts.”
Doucette explained the success of the program, “There are three rules in class. Do what you are told. Do it when you are told. Do it how you are told. These are the basics not only for martial arts but also for business and ultimately for life.”
This summer, Mr. Larson was approached by Andy Cherenfante of the Cherenfante Group, who was interested in connecting boys to male role models. Cherenfante founded the Save Our Sons Meet and Greet when he realized it’s mostly moms dropping their kids off at school. Andy explained, “We wanted the students to recognize us as their fathers, their uncles and their neighbors. To shake their hands on that first day of school and tell them, ‘Have a great year.’ I actually didn’t expect the depth of reaction we got from the students, the parents and even the teachers who came out. A lot of times people think of doing the grand things, but it’s the smaller things that often make the most difference.”
Julia Musella is changing the world through Art Throb, an arts outreach program that boasts ongoing arts instruction for students of three schools in Pompano (Pompano Beach, Markham and Cypress Creek). “Through the arts, everything comes alive.” said Musella. “While they are studying the Namibian ostrich egg mosaics, they are also learning science, math and to love reading.”
Mike Denker, aka “Coach Mike” has a different kind of contribution. “I look at these kids at Pompano Elementary and I see a generation who will carry a hope their parents and grandparents didn’t have.”
Larson explained, “Coach Mike helps me think differently, to think outside of the box. He gives me inspiration, creative ideas, and a grounding that I need to stay focused.” You quickly learn not to call Mr. Larson at 2:00 on Fridays. Invariably he’s talking with Coach Mike.
The story at Pompano Beach Elementary is far from complete. Although their school grade has improved, the staff at PBE remains restless. “100 percent (grade-level reading) is our goal and we mean it,” stated Ms. Foster.
Chamber President Ric Green sums it up, “We don’t have the luxury of telling students to wait while we work on change. There has to be a drive to do it for them now. We can look at this issue and work collaboratively with everyone willing to bring something to the table. Together we can find a way to make this work.”
To join the revolution, call 754-322-8050 and ask for Steve Larson, he’ll put your talents to good use to change the world.
Anitra Parmele is a writer for Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale. To contact her, email [email protected].