By Chris Felker
Some good news for Royal Palm Beach High School was announced in December: its annual grade from the state rose from last year’s disappointing C to an above-average B grade.
At the Royal Palm Beach Village Council meeting Dec. 18, Councilman Jeff Hmara was excited to share the news.
He had met the previous night with school district administrators and Palm Beach County School Board Member Marcia Andrews in a long-sought gathering to discuss ways to support the community’s high school.
“We worked through Area 5 Superintendent Dr. Frank Rodriguez and Marcia Andrews to get it set up. It took quite a while to pull that off,” Hmara said, noting the need for patience in getting things done. “If you stay at it, you can make it happen.”
Director of Planning Kris Garrison took the lead in the Dec. 17 discussion, Hmara said.
“We were talking about a number of issues that Royal Palm Beach High School has had in the past, some of which they’ve made progress on, as evidenced by the B letter grade,” he said. “But others still need work, and basically some of those are appearance issues. So we were talking about the need for additional attention, and oftentimes that manifests itself in resources, money in particular.”
He hopes the timing of the school’s receiving a better grade from the state will bolster the behind-the-scenes efforts to improve its programs, appearance and reputation.
Principal Jesus Armas, too, extolled the value of patience in a bulletin posted on the RPBHS web site.
“What pleases me most about this grade is that it was achieved the right way and built to last,” he noted. “We have been patient in furthering our vision by establishing a strong infrastructure, providing the proper professional development for our staff, and creating a culture of respect and excellence on our campus.”
The principal credited a team effort.
“We are fortunate to have strong leadership at the district level from Superintendent Wayne Gent and School Board Member Marcia Andrews,” he continued. “We are grateful for the support that we received from Area Superintendent Ian Saltzman and Area Director Joe DePasquale, from the Royal Palm Beach Village Council and the Education Advisory Board, and from our parents and community members. We are proud of the work done by our leadership team, our instructional support team and our non-instructional staff. We are, however, most proud of our classroom teachers and students, who are on the front line of where the learning truly occurs.”
Hmara said he thought Armas was being a little modest.
“While Principal Armas is quick to give credit to the team, without his leadership, I don’t think we would have seen these changes. He has done a remarkable job in the four-plus years he has been over there,” Hmara said at the Dec. 18 meeting. “One of the keys is to make sure that he gets the support and resources necessary to continue this.”
Armas was happy about the better grade, but told the Town-Crier that it was no Christmas present.
“I’m certainly very pleased with the fact that we moved up. It has been an effort that has been ongoing. We feel that we’ve gone about handling the school grades appropriately,” he said, noting that Florida Department of Education changes made it tougher for schools to move up. “Last year, the FDOE upped the threshold numbers to earn letter grades, making it more difficult to earn an A. Under the old point system, our 1,097 points would have been an A.
For this school year, there will be even more changes to school grading because of different tests and a different scoring method.
“So, while we don’t know how grades will be affected this year or in the future,” Armas said, “we do know that the work that we are currently doing is real and exceptional.”
While some have focused recently on the school’s imperfect appearance, Armas dismissed those criticisms as somewhat superficial.
“I think that a school is not determined by its brick and mortar. A school is what it is based on its faculty and staff and student body, and the support it receives from its community. While yes, the place could use some sprucing up as far as a paint job or a new marquee, that does not in any way determine who we are or what we are,” he said. “I think anybody who harps on that as a way to shine negative light on a school is, frankly, just reaching for reasons to bring out negative things. We have a lot of good things that are happening on our campus on a daily basis.”
Armas noted the additions of several choice programs at RPBHS, although a request for an International Baccalaureate program is on hold for now.
“We have brought in some programs, such as the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) Academy,” he said. “We have upped our other academies by adding computer gaming, for example, as another academy. Having an IB program would be nice, but it’s not an end-all. We think it would be a good program because our community wants it.”
For his part, Hmara plans to continue pushing for more improvements, and referred again to the Dec. 17 meeting that he thinks was very productive.
“We have had the offering of an International Baccalaureate program to RPBHS, but because of a shortage of funds, that IB program won’t be coming in the foreseeable future,” Hmara said. “So we talked about how important it would be to continue adding those choice programs so we can keep local students. About a third of those who live in the Royal Palm Beach area go to other high schools for a variety of reasons.”
Hmara would also like to get a Junior ROTC program established at the school. “I’ve seen the results of other Junior ROTC programs at Seminole Ridge and Palm Beach Gardens high schools, and I think it has a remarkably positive impact on the student body,” he said.
Hmara was effusive in his praise for Armas. “I think he’s an outstanding leader and has provided the stability and perseverance we needed, combined with some nice choice programs,” he said.
Armas said that he will continue working hard to meet the community’s high expectations.
“While there may be some people who may not be happy with the paint job or anything else, a strong majority of the students who walk across our stage are very happy with their educational experience,” he said. “And the things that I hear on a daily basis from parents are all positive. The community is behind us. We believe that the things that we have here on our campus have been built to last now, and we see nothing but great things continuing forward for Royal Palm Beach High School.”