Florida prides itself as a military-friendly state. So when MacDill Air Force Base officials voiced concern about the poor academics and safety at the middle school serving base children, community leaders acted.
Problems at Tampa's Monroe Middle School surfaced when Col. Tony Buntyn with the Air Force Reserves met with the base commander for MacDill. Buntyn was making a courtesy call as a member of the South Tampa Chamber of Commerce Military Affairs Committee.
"We asked him what can we do for you?" Buntyn said. "And the very first thing he asked for is help with Monroe Middle School. It was in trouble and that is the school that supports our men and women that live on MacDill."
Monroe – once an A rated school – had dropped to a D in 2012. And there were discipline problems. Buntyn said the chamber got involved and worked with school district officials, local businesses and non-profit organizations to alter the downward spiral at Monroe.
"It’s not just a local issue. It’s a national security issue," Buntyn said. "Our military men and women deserve the best and here we are with a D-rated school serving them."
The community effort became known as “Operation MacDill,” a combined force of educators, parents, business owners and military members all dedicated to improving the school.
In their first move, school district officials changed leadership at Monroe.
A seasoned teacher and education administrator, Kenneth Hart, took over as Monroe principal in June 2012.
You’ll find Hart most mornings with his teachers, monitoring the hallways as Monroe students change classes. He proudly pointed out that students were in their classrooms, seated and working before the final bell.
Hart said the key to changing the culture at Monroe is to set clear expectations and then to live up to them. Hart’s expectation for his first year as principal: turn the school’s D grade into a B.
He laid out several steps to get there like initiating a uniform policy: students must wear collared shirts, pants or shorts all in solid colors.
Creating teacher teams and making training available.
Reestablishing strong communication with MacDill leaders was another priority.
"We needed to rebuild our reputation and it took awhile," Hart said.
One thing he did for Monroe’s military children, about 20 percent of the students, was to create the Student to Student program. Eighth grader Kaylea Stephens is one of the selected students who shows new military students around the school and acts as a mentor.
Stephens said one of the most common questions from the new students is about Monroe's grade.
"I tell them we used to be a D school, but when Mr. Hart came we graded up to almost a B. We missed it by six points," Stephens said.
Missing the goal of a B this spring weighs as heavily on students like Stephens as it does on Monroe's teachers and administrators.
"She’s aware of where we were, where we are and where we want to be," Hart said."And that’s part of our whole approach is to let everybody know we we’re not happy to be a D, we’re not happy to be a C. We’re going to be really happy when we’re an A."
This is Hart's second year at Monroe and the second year of Operation MacDill. But he's enlisted more than discipline, uniforms, teacher training and student mentoring to bring about change.
Monroe is enrolled in the Council for Educational Change Project PASS (Partnership to Advance School Success). The non-profit, statewide organization pairs principals with business leaders to improve community schools. It also pools funding from state grants, foundations like Carnegie and other resources for technology upgrades.
One of the partners helping at Monroe is the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay, which contributed $50,000 to help buy technology and train teachers. Marlene Spalten is President and CEO.
"The grants committee listened to the presentation, the leaders of the base came and in very compelling terms, told us (the committee) how much it would mean to the enlisted personnel to have us working in that school," said Spalten.
"One of the big factors is that military children move in and out of schools," Spalten said. "What captured my imagination was that the school was looking for ways to more quickly integrate them into the school."
Principal Hart is counting on interactive white boards to help integrate students into the classroom. They were installed over the summer and every teacher has access to the technology and has been trained to use it.
Hart said the teaching teams even held a friendly competition to determine who developed the best interactive lesson plan using the whiteboards.
"It’s designed to be interactive so a youngster can actually go from his seat to the SMART Board, tap on the board, complete an equation, change a sentence structure, identify a misspelled word," Hart said. "It’s truly interactive and engaging and our school, Monroe, when I came had little or none of that technology."
Veteran reading coach Pat Fisher is happy to have a principal who not only embraces new teaching methods, but who also enforces old-time discipline.
"Teachers can teach. Kids are not running through the hallways and nothing is done about it," Fisher said. "They’re not beating on doors with nothing happening. They’re getting consequences."
Fisher also is excited because Hart embraced her school-wide reading plan. She will visit all the classes from physical education to English to help students learn how to identify word roots and understand vocabulary.
Operation MacDill is a three-year program. By the end of year two, Hart has set the expectation of turning Monroe into an "A" school again.
"And many of our faculty, if you ask them, will know: "What’s our goal? 5-9-0. Five-ninety that’s our goal and that will be an A that's what we're shooting for.
And it’s no surprise in the hallway, just outside the business classroom, is the sign 590 FCAT Street, Hart's avenue for Monroe’s success.