Newly appointed Palm Beach County School District Superintendent Wayne Gent was the featured speaker at the Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce luncheon held Monday at the Royal Palm Beach Cultural Center.
Gent, a longtime teacher, principal and administrator with the district, accepted the superintendent’s position in February. He previously had been recognized as leading the district in its successful effort to pass a referendum funding school construction and renovation, and establishing an external oversight committee to monitor use of the revenue.
Gent has two sons, one going into high school and another entering middle school. “I get an opportunity not only to view public education through the lens of an administrator and teacher, but also as a parent, which I take very seriously,” he said.
Gent said his main focus will be on the students. He was happy to be the speaker at a luncheon that also featured the presentation of 10 chamber scholarships to deserving high school seniors.
“The students here, the seniors, don’t have to sweat it because they are done with FCAT, and today is the first day of FCAT, and it’s a little bit of a stressful time for our students,” he quipped.
Gent said that on some other occasion, he might talk about his views of high-stakes testing, the effect it has on students and how the focus on that test affects course offerings.
“That’s a speech for another day,” he said. “In my own household, I really don’t place a lot of emphasis on it. I place a lot of emphasis on learning, and I place a lot of emphasis on being respectful to your teacher and listening.”
Gent pointed out that the Palm Beach County School District has been rated with an A for the past seven years. “We are the only urban school district in the State of Florida to have that honor,” he said. “I hope that a year from now, we can say eight years in a row.”
As superintendent, Gent said his emphasis will be on teaching and learning. “In order for our students to learn, we have to attract the best teachers we can,” he said, adding that he also wants to have a safe learning environment.
“We work with our students to make ethical decisions and become outstanding citizens and be prepared for the world that’s going to greet them,” he said. “We always say at graduation time that they are going out into the real world. I think these students today know what the real world is… They know a world very different than the one any of us grew up in with the advances in technology and the information age.”
Gent also discussed the challenges of running the nation’s 11th-largest school district. “We have 187 public schools with about 174,000 students that we serve every day,” he said. “Our budget is $2.3 billion, and we have a work force of approximately 21,000 employees, about 12,500 of those as our teachers.”
This year, the state legislature restored about $1 billion to Florida schools that lawmakers had taken away the year before, he noted. “They took it from other areas, but with some of the dollars that come from the federal government, when all is said and done, we still receive less dollars from the state than we have in years past,” he said. “We have about a $35 million shortfall, and the main thing we try to do with the leadership of our school board is to really save positions.”
He said the school board is very close to balancing its budget while not affecting classrooms or the integrity of academic programs.
He noted that the district offers 174 choice programs and career academies.
“Almost 50 percent of our high school students, which makes up about 25,000 students, are enrolled in these career academies,” he said, explaining that he considers it important that the career academies mesh closely with local businesses so that graduating seniors have skill sets that match the job market.
Gent noted that last week the district was named one of four semifinalists for a grant from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. “This is one of the largest monetary awards for any of the school districts in the country, and we’re one of the four semifinalists for this award,” he said. “We were able to get this award and be recognized for this because of the performance of our students, the improvements of our students, but also closing the achievement of minority students, particularly of African-American and Hispanic students.”
The district did not apply for the award, Gent stressed. “They find you,” he said. “Of the 75 urban districts in the country, they come in and look at the criteria, and look at the FCATs and AP and SAT, every acronym you can think of, to see if we are truly benefiting all our students, not just the high-enders, but the other students that are just struggling along.”
He said that in October he will go to New York with other finalists for the award presentation. “What makes this more special is that for the last three years, the person who has given that award out has been the secretary of state,” he said. “It’s a very prestigious award, something that we’re very proud of.”