Leadership Lessons

Robert Runcie – An unconventional path

If not for a passing glance from a teacher proctoring the SAT, Broward County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie’s life would have turned out very differently. Before arriving in the U.S. from Jamaica at the age of six, Bob had no formal schooling. In fact, he had to repeat the first grade. By fourth grade, he had already surpassed the education level of his parents.

But while filling out the paperwork for the SAT during his senior year in high school, a biology teacher saw him select the local Poughkeepsie, New York, community college as the school he would attend. The following Monday, that teacher told Bob that he could make it at a big-name school if he would just apply. A few no. 2 pencil marks next to the bubbles for some different colleges, and Bob was on his way to study economics at Harvard University because they offered him the best financial aid package.

After earning an M.B.A., Bob’s early career path led him to launch a technology consulting firm. But as chance would have it, once again, his path would take a very different turn when an old college friend — Arne Duncan, then CEO of Chicago Public Schools — asked him if he would help the district with its data systems. Bob obliged, and after a number of years and senior roles working in the district, he arrived in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2011, ready to lead.

“You can imagine a world where the biggest priority for everyone — parents, elected officials, business owners, agencies — is making our kids successful. That’d be the greatest place in America to live. That’s what I’m trying to do in Broward County,” he said.

“The big why for me is to change the world. If we can create and evolve to an education system that helps kids develop real life skills, they will have confidence to go out into the world and develop critical consciousness, be connected, think about how to improve their communities,” said Bob.

Florida’s Broward County Public Schools is aiming to become that education system. More than 30,000 employees are working together to improve the life outcomes of more than a quarter of a million students who speak nearly 200 different languages. That’s why Bob calls the region the “21st-century’s Ellis Island.” In this modern-day version, he’s focused on ensuring that speaking a second language is an asset, which is why the district offers 25 dual-language schools.

While the nation’s sixth-largest school system maintained instructional best practices when Bob arrived in 2011, it was a district in operational duress with a particularly lengthy list of to-dos. Two board members had recently been arrested on charges of bribery. The district was out of compliance with a Florida class-size law. Enrollment was dropping by 2,000 students every year. The district’s fund balance was getting too low. A year earlier, 1,400 teachers had been laid off. And its facilities were deteriorating.

“We’ve been able to address and fix every one of those things,” Bob said. “We’re not perfect. We’ve really worked hard and made mistakes. But we’ve had more hits than strikes, and our swing gets better every year. We’re trying to hit home runs for our community.”

Broward County’s on-base percentages are certainly improving. Since Bob arrived, the district has dramatically increase the number of “A”-rated schools and graduation rates are at an all-time high. For the first time since 1989, enrollment is up and charter school enrollment is down. School arrests also have plummeted by more than 65 percent.

“We have worked as a district to build and restore a good deal of public confidence and trust back in the district,” Bob said. “You can’t do this work alone in a school district. It needs to be done with a collaborative partnership.”

The partnership started with Bob’s first look at the district’s data, when he noticed massive discrepancies in disciplinary rates by gender and race. This wasn’t news to community partners. Along with social service organizations, law enforcement agencies, juvenile justice advocates and parent and student groups, Bob and his team met over the course of a year to learn and resolve why so many young people — mostly black males — were being suspended, expelled or arrested for minor offenses that often paved the way to the school-to-prison pipeline. Collectively, they came to an agreement for how best to handle non-violent misdemeanors on school campuses: get to the root of the behaviors with personalized student supports in school.

They created PROMISE — also known as Preventing Recidivism through Opportunities, Mentoring, Interventions, Support and Education — to help students remain in school, receive behavioral and counseling support and reduce non-violent misdemeanor arrests. There was little need to worry about gaining community buy-in, since the community was involved from the start. And PROMISE quickly showed promising results: In just its first year, 90 percent of students referred to the program avoided recommitting offenses. The Obama administration took notice, and PROMISE informed the White House’s guidance on student disciplinary practices nationwide.

“We’re actually changing student behavior that will translate into student outcomes,” Bob said. “We all make mistakes. Students deserve a second chance. Behavior is a symptom of other problems. Our goal should always be to get to the root cause.”

Bob knows that one of the root causes of gaps in outcomes for students is often driven by resources. He is a leading voice on equitable school funding in Florida, fighting to ensure that the students and school systems with the greatest needs get their fair share of available dollars. For this reason, the district announced last summer that it would challenge the constitutionality of the state’s school-funding law in court. Since then, other large school districts in Florida have joined that battle.

When it comes to measuring outcomes, Bob also believes that standardized test results should not be the sole determinant of a student’s — or teacher’s — success, and educators should have more flexibility to develop and use authentic formative assessments throughout the year. In fact, Bob worked with his local teachers’ union to develop solutions to “change the culture, change the dynamic, change the conversation about how assessments are used.”

Bob’s trying to change the culture when it comes to the coursework offered to students, as well. All second-grade students are learning scholastic chess to develop critical thinking skills. In 2013, Broward County became the first school district in the nation to partner with Code.org to provide access to computer science curriculum and resources, and the district’s Digital 5: Pathways to Personalized Learning project expands on that effort throughout Broward County’s elementary schools. At every middle and high school in the district, students are learning to conduct research, assess facts and opinions and develop positions on issues of equity, tolerance and civil rights. All of these efforts are designed to help students develop both hard and soft skills.

This year’s entering kindergarten students will be the graduating class of 2030. “No one is going to be able to say what the needed skills sets are going to look like in 2030,” Bob said. “We already have computers writing their own code. It’s possible to engineer a human baby. How are we going to deal with the ethical and legal and…” Bob seems both worried and excited all at once.

Now a seasoned superintendent, Bob is looking ahead to Broward County’s future. “We’ve had a lot of good movement in the district. The next level of growth is to go to a place where no district has gone — creating a mindfulness district. Emotional intelligence leadership will help us get to dealing with the whole child. They’re respected, loved and develop good positive relationships. If we’re able to do that, we can change the world,” he said. It’s a newer thought he is ruminating over.

He has a little more time to ruminate on these issues these days, now that his three daughters are all starting their own career journeys. He likes to read — biographies, historical narratives and books on leadership and mindfulness. And he reflects. It is the latest books he’s been reading that are inspiring him to think about what’s next for Broward County Public Schools.

“We have to trust teachers that they can deliver, and teachers have to trust students that they can learn,” he added. “At the same time, how do I get better as a human being? How do we all get better? Day after day, as a culture, it’s one of continuous improvement. We find issues and we work on them and come out better on the other end.”

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