Last year when sixth-grader Vivienne Becker told her dad about her classes at Hinson Middle School, that three of them were regularly meeting in a cafeteria setting because of a shortage of teachers, he took action.
“Instead of complaining, I wanted to be part of the solution,” Joseph Becker said.
He gave up a full-time job as a restaurant manager to take a lower-paying position as an English language arts teacher at Hinson in January. And now he’s starting his first full year as a middle school teacher, one example of what education leaders hope will inspire others to resolve the national teacher shortage — the National Education Association estimates US schools are looking for nearly 300,000 educators.
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And even as Volusia County Schools face another year of juggling around teacher vacancies, Becker, 51, of Ormond Beach, says he’s invigorated with his preparation for Monday’s start of school.
“Every year is full of hope,” he said. “You get to start again, and this time it’s going to be better.”
As of Aug. 8, Volusia County was still looking for 124 elementary school teachers, 65 middle school teachers and 44 high school teachers, plus another 20 educators in other district roles.
Mark West, chief of human resources, told the school board that the district is also looking to hire 84 paraprofessionals after having added 16 over the previous two weeks.
“The $15-an-hour minimum has … made it a little more attractive for our paraprofessionals,” West said.
New Volusia County Schools Superintendent Carmen Balgobin said she met Becker at a recent gathering for new teachers and came away hopeful that more willing and able adults might find the passion to teach.
“We all have to be part of the solution if we want to do what’s best for children. That’s how it needs to be,” Balgobin said.
Becker, who was granted a temporary certificate to teach based on a bachelor’s degree he earned from the Art Institute of Chicago decades ago, said he has been working toward getting his professional Florida teaching certification.
He said he doesn’t mind having to take classes himself, that teachers should receive regular and rigorous training to attain proficiency.
The starting teacher pay, $47,500 per year, was a pay cut for the former full-time restaurant manager. But he has been taking shifts on nights and weekends to help pay the mortgage.
Becker said some of the students he assumed were on their third teacher of that school year. “The first day, a kid walked up to me and asked: ‘When are you leaving?’ I said, ‘My name is Mr. Becker and I’m not going to leave you.'”
In addition to his daughter Vivienne, now a seventh grader at Hinson, Becker has an older son, Jack, who attended Hinson but is now at Mainland High School. He said his wife, Christine, has “always been supportive” about his career change.
For Deltona, a $50 million new school
The first thing Deltona Middle School students will see walking into their new building is a study of contrasts. That’s because while Phase 1 of a major construction project has been completed — a $50 million gleaming new building, the first three-story school in the county — Phase 2 involves the teardown of the old school right next door.
The project was made possible by a 2014 voter referendum extending a ½-cent sales tax. First approved in 2001 for 15 years, the tax generated $343 million, helping to build 18 schools and make major facility upgrades to another 14. The 15-year extension runs through 2031.
“I’m very thankful for our community, all of our taxpayers,” Balgobin said. “This is the product of their hard labor and their donations, right, to our community. And also I’m very thankful to our Half-Cent Committee, who was the overseer for this project.”
School Board Chair Ruben Colón, who represents the Deltona area, said the project was originally part of a plan to borrow $150 million for several facility upgrades, but when interest rates rose, the board decided to hold off.
When he was first elected in 2018, Colón promised to advocate for the Deltona Middle School project.
“One of my first goals was to convince the other four people, who barely knew me, you know, maybe we don’t borrow $150 million,” he said. “Can we just borrow $50 million? They agreed.”
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday, he called the new Deltona Middle School “a dream come true for me.” But he’s most looking forward to Monday.
“It doesn’t come to life until our students are walking through here. And our students in Deltona deserve this,” Colón said. “Few people know this about the old school … when it rained, the students had to go out in the hallway to have lunch because the cafeteria flooded. We’re not talking about a Third-World country. … We’re talking about right here in Deltona.”
The new building is the first in the district to be three stories high. One floor will be dedicated to sixth-grade classrooms, another to seventh and the third to eighth.
Kenisha Williams, who’s in her first two weeks on the job as principal of Deltona Middle, has been wowed by the technology capabilities, the design of the cafeteria and a state-of-the-art kitchen for the culinary arts academy students.
“I think it will bring more pride,” she said. “It will bring us together as a school family. The biggest thing is making sure we set those expectations as a faculty and as a staff and as students.”
All the classrooms are built. Phase 2 includes parking and an administrative building. For now, Williams and her administrative team will work temporarily out of other spaces in the new building.
Safety and security update
Chief Michelle Newman, director of safety and security, held a press conference Wednesday to discuss ways in which school resource officers and guardians are working together with law enforcement agencies to ensure safety following the May 24 school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two adults were killed.
WATCH:Video of the school safety press conference
“If tragedy strikes in Volusia County Schools, every one of the officers, the deputies, and school guardians employed by the Volusia County School District are not only trained, but they’re prepared and equipped to respond immediately to any kind of active threat within our schools,” Newman said. “They’re not going to stand by and wait for others to join them. They’ve all signed on the dotted line, as have I, and everyone standing behind me, to sacrifice our own lives if it comes to that.”
All 8,000 Volusia County Schools employees have strategic crisis alert badges, where with the push of a button, help can be summoned from the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office, she said.
Sheriff Mike Chitwood donated law enforcement radios to be placed on every school and charter school campus, Newman said.
“This is very beneficial in that at the push of a button, an emergency button, it summons help directly to the communications center to where they’re communicating directly with a sheriff’s office dispatcher so that help can immediately be dispatched.”
The sheriff’s office will also have access to all cameras in the school district during a crisis.
“After Uvalde, after some of the very unfortunate events that have happened in our schools, our schools around the country, we wanted the community to know that we are working together to keep our students, teachers and staff safe,” Colón said.
Offering resources to underperforming schools
The seven Volusia County schools that earned Ds on their state grades this summer will be among those getting extra attention and progress monitoring from district staff, Balgobin said. They are: Blue Lake, Orange City, Pierson, Turie T. Small, Sunrise and Pride elementary schools and Campbell Middle School.
“Equal is not fair. You have to really evaluate each school to see what their needs are,” Balgobin said. “Obviously if you want to assist that school by providing the supports and services needed, you have to see where they need those supports and services, look at the team you have of individuals here in the district, and we exist to support schools. And make sure that schedule really meets their needs.”
The district’s assistant superintendents for elementary, middle and high schools, plus directors and coaches might make three visits a week to those schools, as compared to fewer such visits at schools that earned A or B grades, she said.
Volusia will allocate grant money to approximately 18 schools to get resources to students who have been unable to crack 50% proficiency in reading “so we can accelerate them in the right direction,” she said.
Also, the district took principals and assistant principals at lesser-performing schools on a field trip this summer. For three days, they went to “intensive professional” training offered by the Florida Department of Education in Orange County.
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