The Lee County schools superintendent was not dressed in his usual suit and tie when he delivered his annual State of Our Schools address.
As James Browder stood on stage at the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre in Fort Myers this morning, he wore a long curly wig, tie-dye shirt and used words such as “groovy” and “stoked” to describe his excitement.
But he wasn’t the only one paying homage to the 1960s and ‘70s.
This year’s annual “State of Our Schools” breakfast hosted by the Lee County School District and the Foundation for Lee County Public Schools was called “LeeStock.” The theme was “Peace, Love and Education.”
Marshall Bower, executive director of the Foundation For Lee County Public Schools, said they choose themes every year to keep things “interesting.”
“It’s an early morning and we want to wake them up,” he said.
During his speech, Browder, still in costume, touted the gains made by the district in the last year.
“Every year it seems more and more is asked of our public schools and every year it seems our faculty and staff rise to the occasion and deliver,” Browder said. For the first time since the state started grading schools and districts, the Lee County School District received an “A” rating. Browder said this was especially significant given the challenges outside of the classroom, such as the county’s high foreclosure and unemployment rates.
He said the district’s “A” grade is evidence that teachers are working hard to help students succeed.
“It’s an indication that our youngsters are performing at a higher academic level,” Browder said.
The high school graduation rate is 77 percent, the highest in 10 years for the district. The dropout rate is a little over 1 percent, down from 7 percent seven years ago, Browder said.
Still, 50 percent of 10th-graders aren’t reading at grade level, but Browder said that by the time those students are seniors that number is down to 18 percent.
“We realize we need to work harder on the 10th-graders, but more importantly, we need to work on all levels,” Browder said.
Another telling number: 70 percent of students in Lee County now qualify for free or reduced lunch.
“Seven out of 10 students come to school hungry,” Browder said.
Lee County now has a higher percentage of students who need free or reduced lunch than Miami-Dade County, Browder said.
“If you don’t think our community is hurting … look in our classrooms,” he said.
Lee County schools have become more diverse and the student population is larger, too.
The Lee County School District, with about 80,000 students, is one of the 50 largest in the country. Only 146 districts in America have more than 40,000 students.
To accommodate the growth, the district has built 29 new schools since 2003 and has added 19 additions to existing schools. Browder said the continued construction created jobs in the community.
“We are the economic engine in this county,” he said.
But Browder said the district’s budget is not growing to meet all of the demands placed upon it. He claims the district is still being funded the same way it was seven years ago.
In the beginning of the year, the district dealt with a $28 million cut and had to cut another $2.8 million as the school year went on.
Another threat to the budget: The loss of the federal stimulus money. Browder said the district received about $28 million in federal money.
“I can promise you that this School Board … will rally to make sure we don’t hurt the children,” he said. Browder believes students need to spend more days in the classroom to stay competitive with students from other nations. Japanese students are in school 223 days a year, he said, compared to 180 days for U.S. students.
“It’s not a level playing field yet people insist on comparing us to the rest of the world,” Browder said.
Browder believes policy-makers should log time in public schools before making decisions.
After his speech, Browder said he doesn’t know whether or not the district, which is the county’s largest employer, will have to cut any jobs in the next year.
“I hope that there are no reductions,” Browder said.