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Leadership Profile: Robert Runcie

Broward County's leader is out front in the charge to revamp
school discipline policies.

When the Obama administration issued guidelines earlier this year encouraging districts to revise their zero-tolerance policies, the recommendations sounded remarkably familiar to staff members in Broward County Public Schools in Florida. Led by Superintendent Robert Runcie, the district had implemented similar discipline changes in 2013. The goal: to cut off the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.

“Some of my staff joke that the Obama administration might have taken our policies and framework and developed them into national guidelines,” says Runcie. “What we’ve got is very aligned with that. We went out early on.”

Rethinking Discipline
When Runcie was hired as the head of the country’s seventh-largest school district in 2011, his primary focus was student achievement. He saw the achievement gap that plagues districts large and small across the U.S. But he also took a close look at behavior. “We had the largest number of student arrests, expulsions, and suspensions in the state of Florida,” Runcie admits. “That’s not a category you want to be a winner in.”

When Runcie’s team analyzed the data, they found students were being expelled for attendance issues and offenses as minor as not wearing the school uniform and throwing spitballs. In other cases, students were expelled for trespassing or getting into scuffles. “When we were kids, we would be sent to the principal’s office,” Runcie says. “They’d bring our parents in and try to get the issues addressed.”

More recently, however, schools across the country have been kicking students out in larger numbers and, in some cases, having them arrested. In doing so, students lose valuable instructional time and do not receive the behavioral and academic support they need.

“We’re not going to continue to arrest our kids and put them in a position where they can’t recover,” says Runcie. “Once you have an arrest record, it becomes difficult to get scholarships, get a job, or go into the military.

”Runcie and his team spent the better part of a year working with a task force to develop a solution. With the collaboration of the county sheriff’s office, local police, department of juvenile justice, elected officials, and the NAACP, the group examined the district’s policies and agreed on a new code of student conduct. Instead of referring nonviolent misdemeanors to police departments, such infractions would be handled in-school. The task force came to an agreement centered on providing students with in-school support and resources to learn from their mistakes and to give them an opportunity to change their behavior.

Runcie understood that the new framework meant infrastructure to support it. “You can’t just pass a policy and sign an agreement,” he says. The district rolled out its PROMISE (Preventing Recidivism through Opportunities, Mentoring, Interventions, Supports & Education) program. Students receive counseling for three, six, or nine days based on their infraction.

Parents also participate in the process, with additional social services provided as necessary to promote pro-social behavior in students.

Shawn Cerra, principal of J. P. Taravella High School, says school officials have learned about the expectations of the program and are working with students to prevent arrests. “We try to get to the root of the problem—not just put them in jail because that’s the easy thing to do, which is taking a bad situation and making it worse,” Cerra says. “The idea is to look at what’s going on with that particular student and what we can do as a school district to help him or her come back to school and be successful—not to make a bigger obstacle.”

Runcie says the numbers show the program is working. Expulsions and suspensions are down by about 60 percent, while arrests have dropped by 50 percent. Roughly 1,400 students have participated in PROMISE this school year, and only about 70 students are repeat offenders, which Runcie cites as evidence that students are changing their behavior.

Beyond the numbers, Runcie has had conversations with students who are appreciative of the opportunity for a second chance. He hopes the new policies will impact not only individuals but also the culture of schools and academic achievement.

A Laser Focus
That Runcie was able to overhaul this system in his first two years as superintendent may not come as a surprise to those who know his background. His formal training is in management and consulting, and he brought that expertise to Chicago Public Schools, where he served in a variety of roles, including chief information officer and, later, chief of staff to the board of education under Arne Duncan.

“In addition to being an astute businessman and [his experience in] K–12 education, he possesses a laser focus on the big picture,” says Patricia Good, chair of Broward County’s school board.

Runcie sums up that big-picture focus in what may be his mission statement: “to ensure that we give every single child who shows up in Broward County schools an environment where they can achieve their potential.”

“You have to be bold and do what’s right and you have to take risks,” he says. “It means putting our students first in everything we do, and of course supporting our teachers. That’s where the rubber meets the road, because it’s just students and a teacher in the classroom.”   

Summer 2014

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