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Dillard Elementary School's Innovative Way Of Teaching At-Risk Youth

Innovation is a mild word to describe the new approach to teaching at-risk youth. A Boca Raton bank and a Fort Lauderdale tech company are impressively behind it.

Phil McNally’s first job upon graduation from Georgetown University in 1968 was as a case worker for the Department of Social Services in New York City, where he was responsible for 75 families. If that seems like an odd start for a banking career, it does fit with his more recent volunteer activities in the field of education. The Fort Lauderdale president of Boca Raton-based Paradise Bank has taken his bank’s community service, and by extension that of numerous local organizations, into the struggle to improve public schools in underprivileged neighborhoods.
Those organizations include his alma mater, Georgetown, who played a role in a remarkable public school success story – one that helped Fort Lauderdale earn its recent “All-America City” award. The school is Dillard Elementary in the city’s northwest section, one of the most impoverished regions in South Florida. For McNally it is the most satisfying achievement in more than two decades of volunteering in various capacities in public schools.
One given to hyperbole might be tempted to call Dillard Elementary some kind of miracle. But miracles imply unknown causes. In this case the causes are widely known.

Phil McNally is one of them, but he would be the first to admit that he hardly deserves credit for Dillard Elementary’s pioneering success, unless you appreciate the value of a catalyst, which he sure is. He would point to at least two others who deserve primary recognition – Dillard Elementary Principal Angela Brown and Victoria Ranger, president of Ranger Technical Resources, whose company has made a cause of supporting the school.

McNally was introduced to Ranger by a client of Paradise Bank, who knew of his interest in Dillard. McNally immediately recognized an invaluable asset, and in short order had her connected with Angela Brown. Ranger quickly proved to be a catalyst’s catalyst, enlisting her numerous contacts to help the school. The events in which Ranger Good Works, the company’s philanthropic arm, is involved in on behalf of Dillard and other organizations invariably are co-sponsored by well-known institutions, including Paradise Bank, Nova Southeastern University, Neiman Marcus, Microsoft and Citrix.

You can find dozens of schools around Florida with similar populations to Dillard. But almost none enjoys the same level of support from the community. And none has a principal like Angela Brown.

Brown’s commitment to educating underprivileged children came partly from a tragic event. In 2000 her brother was murdered. Instead of doing what some might do – get a gun and get even – Angela Brown investigated the backgrounds of the young men who killed her brother. She elaborates:

“My brother was a business owner. He was robbed by two juveniles who murdered him. One was a 19-year-old living in extreme poverty, the other a 16-year-old sleeping with his mother in a car, who was a drug user. If a school had intervened, it would not have happened. I made up my mind to do whatever I could to prevent this from happening to anyone else.”

That commitment initially was not in education. After earning a degree in clinical psychology from Florida Memorial, and a master’s from Nova Southeastern, she worked for the Department of Juvenile Justice, tutoring boys who had been in trouble.

“I saw that they all had a common bond, lack of reading skills. I just decided I could be more effective in the teaching field,” Brown says.

Left Volunteer grandmothers take a break at Dillard. Many of them are the principal caretakers for students.

Center Erasable desk tops, a Dillard innovation, is being copied by other schools.

Right Angela Brown visits an all-boys science class. Single-gender classes are controversial but work well enough that other schools are picking up the idea.

What makes Dillard Elementary different from any other public school in an inner city neighborhood? Just about everything. It is typical only in the sense of its location, which is much like some neighborhoods in Pompano Beach and Delray Beach. The children are uniformly poor. Many lack almost everything other children enjoy – most importantly – a normal family.

“Eighty percent of them are from single-parent families,” says Brown. “Eighty percent are raised by grandparents or great grandparents.”

That’s where the comparisons stop. Dillard Elementary in many ways replaces the family. It gives the students free food, as do other public schools. But it is unique in providing a take-home snack on Friday afternoons. Still, some children arrive hungry on Monday mornings. The school has also supplied clothing. It engages whatever adults are in the child’s life, virtually insisting they become involved with the school.

Its teaching methods are nothing if not innovative. Boys and girls are in separate classes for certain subjects, on the theory that they learn differently. Walk into a classroom and you get the impression the children are playing. And they are, but in a way that also teaches. Games are designed to teach math and science. They aren’t sitting in rows of desks. They are roaming about, working in small groups. And unless they are the greatest little actors the world has known, they genuinely enjoy school.

“The strategy is using students to become self-learners and also self-teachers. It’s more effective than just listening to a teacher. The student is taking ownership – using trial and error through learning,” Brown explains.

The results speak for themselves.

“Three years ago we were a D and F school,” Brown says, “but we’re a C school now. We have a 10 percent increase in reading, 14 percent in math, 5 percent in science. In writing we are up 9 percent.”

Dillard Elementary begins with 3-year-olds in a head start program and runs to the standard fifth grade. Brown has been at the school three years, which means almost half the students preceded her reforms. It is like a sports coach beginning to enjoy the fruits of several seasons of recruiting. She is quick to point out that the success is the result of freedom granted by the school board.

“We don’t let the district near here,” she says, only half joking. “One of the first things our new superintendent [Robert W. Runcie] told us is that we are CEOs of our own schools. We are able to be creative and think out of the box.”

Her thinking has not gone unnoticed.

Runcie observes: “Principal Brown continues to provide the type of leadership that is needed to help every student reach his or her highest potential. She is innovative and dedicated to the students at her school. She has worked diligently to create a culture of excellence at Dillard Elementary School. The school has flourished under her leadership. She is also a model for community engagement and support. She is dedicated to giving her students every opportunity to excel and grow.”

Principals of other schools have visited Dillard, (some 50 in one week) and some of its ideas, such as single-gender classes, are being tried experimentally elsewhere.

Brown also takes monthly tours of other schools to get ideas.

One gets the impression that the Dillard staff is sorry to see the school day end. Indeed, the school has greatly expanded its extracurricular opportunities, with particular emphasis on the arts. It has also made a considerable effort to engage students in extracurricular activities.

“A lot of them don’t have much to go home to,” Brown says. “We try to keep them off the streets. About 78 percent of them are involved in these programs.”

Among the after-school activities:

• A gardening club grows fruits and vegetables, which are given to the families. It began with 12 students; it now has more than 50.

• A horn band and drum line band.

• A girls step team dance group, which includes 75 girls.

• An Impact Girls program for second and third graders introduces girls to careers in technology, science and medicine.

• Fly Guys, a mentoring program for boys.

• Big Brothers, Big Sisters.

With all the effort to overcome its students’ backgrounds, and the emphasis on cultural programs, it is almost like a private school. The story begs two questions. The first has no answer, at least not yet. Where will the children be 10, 20, 30 years from now? Will Angela Brown have succeeded in preventing the kind of tragic end to her brother’s life?

Second, if Dillard Elementary is working so well, why is the model not being repeated in other similar neighborhoods? Angela Brown knows of no other school in South Florida that is following her school’s program. And she knows why.

“They don’t have the support of Paradise Bank and Ranger Good Works,” she says, without hesitation. “It takes the community to move a school.”

It is pleasantly ironic that Paradise Bank, with headquarters in Boca Raton, one the country’s richest cities, should be such an influential player in one of South Florida’s poorest communities. How so? Paradise Regional President in Fort Lauderdale Phil McNally goes back in public education far beyond the Dillard Elementary experience. In the 1990s, responding to a need for corporate input into strategic planning for education, McNally became chairman of Communities in Schools of Broward. At the time he was running the former Capital Bank’s downtown Fort Lauderdale office, in the same building as the school board. When Frank Till became school superintendent, they met and he was soon asked to co-chair the strategic planning initiative for the school system with Dr. Wilhemenia Mack. McNally later became active with charter schools.

Paradise Bank’s support for Dillard is consistent with its interest in public education. Paradise President and Chief Operating Officer Bill Burke, who works out of the bank’s Boca Raton headquarters, sits on the board of the Paradise Education Foundation. The 3-year-old foundation has provided scholarships for 30 students from challenged environments to Broward College. The support for Dillard Elementary came naturally.

McNally has actually had two tours with the school. He explains:

“Pat Dixon was the principal who started the turnaround, and in 2000 I was brought into Dillard Elementary at the request of the Urban League/Annenberg Foundation because their model required a CEO from the business community to be associated with the school. Laura Martin (a 60-year veteran teacher who still works at Dillard) was the constant through all this. She has been a friend from my first association and reintroduced me to Dillard after a few years of radio silence. She said I had to meet Angela Brown because ‘she was something special’’ – and that certainly was the case. We redirected our efforts from charter schools to Dillard Elementary and introduced Victoria Ranger and she got hooked. She brought great energy and additional financial resources to the school on a collaborative basis.”

The Dillard Elementary School story was an important component in the presentation in June in Denver where the National Civic League named Fort Lauderdale as one of 10 All-America Cities. From left, Victoria Ranger, Angela Brown and Phil McNally joined City Manager Lee Feldman in making the city’s case. The Dillard Innovation Zone Promise Neighborhood attracted considerable interest from representatives of other cities in attendance.

Victoria Ranger is president of Ranger Technical Resources, founded in 1996 and headquartered in downtown Fort Lauderdale. The firm specializes in IT recruitment and consulting. Its 15 employees serve a range of businesses. The company’s philanthropic arm, Ranger Good Works, is an outgrowth of Victoria Ranger’s service with a number of non-profits since the 1990s, including being on the board of directors of the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.

Nothing in the past, however, compares to the commitment her organization has made to Dillard Elementary School. It sponsored three events for the school in just one week in October.

Victoria Ranger explains: “It started when I met Angela Brown two years ago. When I heard her story, I was so moved. Children were turned away from school because they didn’t have shoes. We purchased 150 pairs of shoes. They had zero budget for after-care programs.

“It’s sort of funny,” she continues. “I had never been involved in the school system, and I had no idea these kids were just two miles from our office. I wanted to do my best to help. It’s become a second full-time job.”

Help includes volunteer work by Ranger employees. It involves reaching out to Neiman Marcus, which has brought in artists to work with students. The events at Neiman Marcus’ Galleria Mall store (the most recent was Nov. 5) give the school a percentage of sales from those who attend. It has raised thousands of dollars for the school. Although she is a familiar figure at Dillard, most of Victoria Ranger’s contributions to the school are outside. For instance, Ranger Good Works took 40 children on Oct. 21 to Nova Southeastern University’s Graduate School of Computer and Information Science, where the NSU technical staff showed them how to build a solar powered robot. For most of the students, it was their first exposure to a college environment.

The events in which Ranger Good Works is involved in on behalf of Dillard and other organizations invariably are co-sponsored by well-known institutions, including Paradise Bank, Nova Southeastern University, Neiman Marcus, Microsoft and Citrix.

Her role as a networker extraordinaire traces to her education. She majored in political science and international relations at Central Michigan University. She interned with a Michigan organization working on economic development with Japan, and spent a year in Japan as a goodwill ambassador, where she learned the language.

She sees her involvement with Dillard as a stepping stone to broader things. She says:

“We want to show something positive to the community, that this could be a repeatable program, if individuals get engaged. It’s about giving hope and having the community acknowledge these areas that need addressing. Any community can do what we’re doing. There’s a lot of loving people out there, and the biggest part is to lead them to try something different.”