Royal Palm Beach High School was the featured school at the Royal Palm Beach Education Advisory Board meeting on Monday, Sept. 9, and Principal Dr. Jesus Armas brought key members of his staff along to help lead the presentation.
“A long time ago, I realized that I was neither the smartest nor the most talented guy in the room,” Armas said. “I learned that I needed to surround myself with outstanding people. Here tonight, you’re going to find some of the best people you can find in the business of education. They are experts in their fields. Any successes that we’ve had have been because of all the hard work that they have put in.”
Armas explained how the vision that drives RPBHS is based on a holistic outlook when addressing the needs of students. The focus shifted to specifics on how the school provides a safe, respectful and socially just environment.
Crystal Amado is the principal’s designee in charge of school safety at RPBHS. She explained how the school handles safety in three parts — instruction, systems and culture.
“We conduct staff trainings every year,” Amado said. “We have trained on child abuse, suicide prevention, youth mental health, Title IX, and new this year through the Florida Department of Education, a mental health stimulation program called Kognito. They have to do a simulation program, and it’s very interactive. Then we do RPBHS safety practices training, which deals with everything about us and the building based on the layout.”
Students also receive safety training and participate new initiatives, such as the “See Something/Say Something” campaign to encourage the reporting of concerns.
The campus also takes a holistic approach to safety by offering more than just physical safety devices, such as gates and cameras. The school is passionate about keeping students fed, too. RPBHS offers free breakfast and supper to all students, and knows that 63 percent of its students are eating a full lunch meal. That is 6 percent higher than the other seven county schools with a similar system.
“If a kid was just an FSA score, then we would have missed the entire point of what we’re supposed to be doing,” Armas said.
Safety personnel for the school includes four assistant principals, three full-time police officers (one in the process of hiring), a police aide at the front gate, seven full-time personnel for security, three deans of student services, 18 members on the crisis response team and 14 staff members in counseling services.
Board Chair Dr. Bill Thallemer asked about support for staff members.
“People are leaving the profession at a very high rate,” he said. “What kind of mental health are we looking at for our employees?”
Amado explained there is a free and anonymous Employee Assistance Program (EAP), or if they are comfortable, staff can work with them directly as counselors.
Counseling Services Department Coordinator Nikki Lanier then took the podium and described the programs offered by her department.
“We’ve grown our counseling services from the traditional school counselors that you would think of,” Lanier said. “We had seven counselors on campus, and we now have 14 staff members in our department.”
She explained that the expansion added behavioral specialists and school psychologists.
In support of the “respectful” part of the RPBHS vision, media specialist Gwen Von Werne shared how personally invested the staff is in the school.
“We have 19 staff members who have a student presently on our campus. In addition to that, and almost more importantly, we have 24 employees who are alumni,” Von Werne said. “I think that’s amazing because people want to come back. Each year that is growing, and it speaks volumes to the good stuff that is happening on our campus.”
Von Werne also explained how RPBHS achieved its “Happiest High School in Palm Beach County” status. The school had the highest participation in the survey at 87 percent, and 97 percent of the staff reported they were satisfied working at the school.
Thallemer urged finding ways to communicate this good news to the public. “Community reception is everything, and it seems we keep this information in our little happy place,” Thallemer said. “We’ve got to think of ways to get this out to the public. We have to be advocates. I think our team can do a better job to push that message out.”
RPBHS IB Coordinator Lori Putnam shared that the school is the sixth in Palm Beach County that offers an International Baccalaureate diploma. In addition, the school participates in the AVID, ACE and AP programs.
Other speakers at the meeting included School Board Member Marcia Andrews, Central Regional Elementary Instructional Superintendent Vivian Green and Central Regional Secondary Instructional Superintendent Karen Whetsell.
Whetsell shared her personal perspective on last week’s lockdown at Crestwood Middle School, as she was present during the incident that day. Reports of shots fired near the school turned out to be a false alarm.
“I want to take a moment to give some recognition to Crestwood Middle School. What I want to say is kudos to the PBSO and to the school police,” Whetsell said. “I am so proud of the work that they did. Principal Dr. Stephanie Nance walked right out there and took care of business. We practice for this all the time, and it’s very heartening when you walk into a place and see that everything happens the way it needs to happen.”