Interview with Orange County Superintendent of Schools – Ronald Blocker
Conducted by: West Orlando News Online
Date: September 1, 2011
WONO: Mr. Blocker, you have led the Orange County Public Schools District since July 2000. What are some of the major changes you have seen take place over that 11-year span?
Ronald Blocker: There are so many of them, but perhaps the most significant were, the more inclusive nature of our diverse student population and the more rigorous and advanced courses that are being offered. These changes meant there were more minority students, specifically African-Americans and Hispanics, taking more advanced placement courses and gifted programs in our system.
As you might know, when you pass advanced placement tests, its equivalent to a college credit. So, students get credit when they apply to enter universities. These courses range from advanced placement chemistry, physics and biology to advanced placement in arts and humanities. The important thing is that, our students are taking college-level courses in high school.
Also, we have increased the number of students in what we call “dual enrollment classes,” which means that the student can get a community college degree the same year that they get the high school diploma. In other words, successful students gets two diplomas when they walk across that stage.
WONO: There is the slogan, “OCPS Means Success,” and another which says, “One Vision, One Voice.” What do these mean?
Ronald Blocker: One applies to an external audience and one is more for the internal audience. The “OCPS Means Success” is our way of telling the public that, we are pushing to be the best. Specifically, when students participate in OCPS, whether they are in a K-12th grade group, or in the adult education group, or what we call the Career Education group, we will push them to be the best student in the country. It’s also connected to our vision statement, which is to be the top producer of the most successful students in the nation.
“One Vision, One Voice” is an internal message to all the employees to let everybody know that, regardless of your job, you are part of “One Vision” and that is, being the top producer of successful students in the country. We operate under “One Voice” and that is, we are all on the same plane, pushing for the same thing. We are not going in different directions. When you have a large complex district – we are the tenth largest in the nation and the second largest employer in Central Florida, second only to Disney, with 22,000-plus employees – we want to make sure everyone is operating on the same plane and moving in the same direction.
WONO: Most school districts across the state are under budgetary pressure owing to the recent cuts to education. How has this affected OCPS and what are the wider implications for education in Florida?
Ronald Blocker: Well, all the school districts including OCPS have undergone revenue short falls for the past two to three years. OCPS currently is being funded at the same level we were funded in 2001, when there were less students and fewer programs. However, OCPS is a little bit better off than most of our neighboring school districts and those around the State because, last November we went to the public and asked them to support an extra millage increase. So, we have an extra mill that we can fund our schools, although all the experts told us because of the poor state of the economy, the public would not support it. But, we basically told the community that: “We have had three ‘As’ from the State Department of Education and as a District we are moving in a positive direction. These are your children and we are not asking you to give us money for add ons. We are asking you only to give us money to maintain what we already have.”
The reason we went to voters was, we recognized a couple years ago that, with the end of the Federal Stimulus dollars last June and without the State Legislature stepping in to fill the gap, which we anticipated would not occur, OCPS would have had a major shortfall of $95 million. So, we went to the public to help fill that gap. The mill really makes up about $83 million. So, even though our budget short-fall is not painless, it is manageable, compared to our neighbors who are laying off a lot of people and cutting programs.
WONO: How has the OCPS’ building program faired in these tight budget times? Are plans still on track concerning new schools, and upgrading and replacing older facilities?
Ronald Blocker: Yes, the plans are still on track. The sales tax that was passed in 2002 is financing our Buildings Program. The State of Florida didn’t give us any money for buildings this year, although they gave $55 million to Charter Schools. I won’t argue with that because, if they give Charter Schools money to manage their facilities, so be it, but I didn’t want them to not give us any. All of the school districts got zero. This means that our sales tax is the only Building money we have and even though the money is coming in, if we continue on this path we will probably run out of sales tax money on project 91 and we have 136 that we were hoping to fund. So, unless more tourists come to Central Florida and the economy turns around, we will run out of funding. But right now we are on track. We opened two new schools and renovated six this year, for a total of eight schools. We had 13 new and or renovated schools last year. So we are moving at a good pace.
WONO: If the economy doesn’t turn around sufficiently quickly, when would you run out of funds for the building program?
Ronald Blocker: The School Board realizes if the economy doesn’t turn around, those schools at the end of the list will really be penalized, as they will see other schools all over the district being renovated. Right now the School Board is just thinking about it. We haven’t had a conversation, but we may have to go back out again and ask the public to extend that half-penny sales tax. If they don’t, we’ll just run out at project 91 and then we’ll just have to hope the State of Florida will come through and help us with our building program.
If you recall, the half-penny sales tax was approved in 2002 and went into effect in 2003. It continues until 2015 and is projected to bring in $2 billion in total. But, that projection was based on how many people actually bought goods and services. It is somewhat of a painless tax because it is based on dollars spent.
WONO: How important has community support/volunteers been in helping to achieve those gains that you talked about earlier?
Ronald Blocker: The community support is very important. I tell everyone “It takes a Village to raise a child” and that is very important. If parents are more involved in their children’s education, then the community would be more involved in making schools more successful because, when you have a successful education program, you have better economic development. When companies are looking to relocate, they look at whether there are good schools and in turn, good schools allow us to have a better trained workforce. So, in order for that to happen the community really has to help us do the job we need to do, and they do. Not only those persons volunteering to help in the schools, but a lot of businesses serve as advisory committees to us. For instance, in our career technical education area, there are various industries, such as truck driving, in which we train people. For each of those areas we actually have an advisory committee of businesses that keep us current in what we are training. If you go to our Adult Center, which is Orlando Tech next to the Educational Learning Center, you will see that we have high-tech digital media, health, including a high-tech nurses training program. So, we try to stay current.
WONO: What are some of the challenges faced by OCPS now and going forward?
Ronald Blocker: I would say the challenge moving forward would be funding because, even though the economy remains sluggish, the cost of providing education has not. The Florida Legislature just required us to have at least 50 percent of our text books and other materials digitized. That’s going to cost money. It is good to have digitized media in your library and classrooms, but that is going to cost quite a bit. We didn‘t require that, it was the Florida State Legislature. Then of course, making sure we have the right people trained to do the job. So, funding is going to be big.
Next, being able to stay current with the changing needs of the workforce will be a challenge, because we are training children right now for a work environment that we can’t even describe, twenty years from now. Things are changing so fast. There’s the digital materials – desk top computers and DVDs. Back in 1990 our high school seniors and preschoolers didn’t have CDs. We don’t know what the requirements for the new workforce will be, so we have to stay current.
Then there are the changing needs based on whatever demographics we will have to deal with. It means we have to continue the strong bilingual programs that we have. Orange County has over 200 nationalities in the student body and over 170 languages and we have to make sure those children achieve, so they can enter the workforce. Those are some of the challenges.
WONO: Concerning the workforce challenge and preparing children for the future, all across America, there is a mismatch between the needs of companies and the skills of students that graduate. What can be done to get a better alignment of skills with needs?
Ronald Blocker: We have been marketing ourselves pretty heavily, indicating that this is a time to re-tool. A lot of people have been laid-off and now is a good time to retrain in our technical areas. Some people are taking advantage and moving toward high-tech – improving their technology skills with our training programs. Others are learning a whole new skill, whether it is training to become a beautician, a licensed nurse or in television production, they are upgrading their technical skills. At our technical centers, there are many older learners nowadays.
As far as our younger learners are concerned, the most important thing we can do is make sure they can read on grade-level. The problem here is that, a lot of our students who decide to drop out of school don’t read well, and never learn to read well. But, when they drop out they are guaranteed to relegate themselves to chronic unemployment, or possibly a life of crime. Just to give you one statistic – over 90 percent of incarcerated inmates are functionally illiterate. Hence, they are almost guaranteeing that they will be in a population which does not move forward.
Most of the jobs prior to the economy going south went to people with college education. So, clearly, if those who get post-technical training, whether in an adult school or community college, or a four-year university degree, those are the individuals that seem to get employed and re-employed. If having a high school education no longer guarantees a job, imagine not having a high school diploma and you drop out of school. Even though the Orange County dropout rate is less than 2 percent, those children pretty much are guaranteed to become second-class citizens. This is a challenge that has contributed to the mismatch that you are talking about.
WONO: How does OCPS stack up with other school districts in terms of academic programs, qualified teachers, and athletics and other student programs?
Ronald Blocker: We stack up pretty well when you compare the data. For instance, a system as large as OCPS with 180,000 students, when you look at other urban districts and inner city schools, the graduation rate is around 49 percent. In some large city school districts it can be as low as 29 percent, and of course among African-American males, it tends to be lower. In Orange County, even among our inner city schools or those that one might refer to as academically challenged, none of them have a graduation rate of less than 50 percent. Last year, Jones High School had a graduation rate of 93 percent. I think you will see inner city high schools in the 70s and 80s, going forward. The lowest graduation rate of similar schools in the last five years would have been about 65 percent. So, we stack up pretty well as far as what we offer.
Also, our top 15 percent of students are able to get into any university to which they apply. We are challenging more students in the middle making them pick more rigorous courses. We have been cited as having high enrollment and high performance in those areas. Now, if you compare OCPS to those suburban districts where there is lots of affluence, our rates may not seem as high, but that is because we have a larger population and more poverty. Although some of our schools have graduating rates of 70 to 80 percent, we have more challenges than the suburban districts.
WONO: There is a strong effort coming out of Tallahassee to move in the direction of charter schools, voucher programs and virtual education. How do you view these changes? What might be the implications for public education in Florida?
Ronald Blocker: I believe there will probably be a move to have more choices anyway. I see the move toward charter schools and voucher programs, if not handled correctly, negatively impacting public schools. The State of Florida has never been one to add money to education; we are underfunded; compared to most states we are at the bottom 10 percent of funding. I would say that if you are taking money from that pot to create more charter schools then it makes it harder for public schools to do their job. I think that will definitely impact how well public school educators are able to do their job.
WONO: What’s your view of teacher merit pay? Should teachers’ pay be linked to the performance of their students, as opposed to tenure?
Ronald Blocker: Because the law requires it, we have been working to try and develop a merit system that works. The problem is, no one has developed a merit system for education that works. This year, we were one of the recipients of the Race to the Top funds and we worked with our teachers to see if we could come up with an evaluation system and a merit pay system that is fair and reflects true achievement. I personally think that people who do a great job should be rewarded for doing a great job. But, we just haven’t found a successful way to do that. We are hoping that the new system which we are developing will work. Hillsborough County is also working on a system and a few other districts are working on a system that they think may help.
WONO: Florida has shown improvement, but still its high school graduation rates, per student spending and other important education indices fall well below many other states and the national average. Why? And how is this turned around?
Ronald Blocker: Well, the State of Florida has gotten a great return on its investment, moving from being ranked # 37 academically in the nation, four year ago, to # 17, then # 10 and this year, to # 5. That’s great work, considering how much public education is underfunded. But I think that what is happening now is, we are at the end of our ability to keep doing that. The Legislature keeps giving us more requirements, without adequate funding. Orange County only gets reimbursed about 48-cents it spends on transportation but when you think that is only 52 percent of transportation cost, then we should be totally reimbursed. Instead, money is going into gas and fuels being burned in the atmosphere, and in reality it would be better spent in the classroom.
WONO: Overtime the achievement gap between whites and African-Americans and Hispanics has narrowed, but there still is an educational achievement gap. Why does this persist? How might that gap be closed?
Ronald Blocker: The gap really begins in kindergarten. You can actually trace that achievement gap to the level of poverty and socio-economic status of certain students. So many minorities fall within that category and it becomes a racial and ethnic gap. In reality, even though we are closing that gap, it is difficult to collapse the gap altogether because it starts in kindergarten. Think about this – the families in affluent neighborhoods do a lot to enrich their children. They are involved in preschool activities and by the time they get to kindergarten they are coming in with skills already picked up through various settings. By contrast, in many of our poorer neighborhoods you don’t have those opportunities. Kids from affluent neighborhoods, when beginning kindergarten, already know their colors, shapes, and sizes; they know how to work with each other in social settings. Teachers then work to bring everybody along but, as research has shown, that gap starts widening because the affluent homes continue to enroll their children in gymnastics, dance classes and tutorial sessions. They get them involved in instrumental music and lessons – they do all these social activities and these opportunities are not provided in the poorer neighborhoods. So, the more affluent children are at a more advanced stage and even when the less fortunate students advance a year, that gap continues. That is what contributes to the achievement gap. We try awfully hard to close it, not just in Orange County but all over the nation.
WONO: Over the years you have received many accolades — District Reading Leader of the Year, Florida Art Education Association’s Superintendent of the Year and many more. You were also named among the 50 most powerful people in Central Florida, last year. What would you have liked to accomplish in the school district, but just were not able to do? Why?
Ronald Blocker: There is always something. I wanted to expand our dual language program throughout the county. I think that when you go to other countries they master their native language and at least, one foreign language. In this country we are not as bilingual as we could be. I think since we are an international hub – the sixth busiest airport in the world – we have such diversity as far as nationality in our students and our families, it just seems natural to have more dual language special programs. We do have a magnet program starting in elementary school and also in high school, where students go to one of our high schools in international studies and language. Such a program needs to be more wide-spread in the district, but we just do not have the resources, even though the ones we do have in place are quality.
I would have wanted to see greater gains in the arts because, I think its critical for rounding out students and preparing them for the future. The research shows that children who excel in the arts also succeed in their academic work. But the state funds, for obviously good reasons, go into the core subjects and arts programs that could make a person a more productive citizen, are neglected.
I would have liked to pay teachers more. They are greatly underpaid and they go into their own pockets to buy supplies for their classes; they work long hours, longer than people realize. They sometimes sacrifice their own family lives to make sure that the students in their classrooms are successful. I would definitely want to pay them more, even though during my tenure, OCPS became one of the highest paying districts in the region. When I first came we were not there but we made a concerted effort to be one of the highest paid. At one time we were the highest paying school district between Hillsborough and Volusia, from coast-to-coast in Central Florida, but some of the other districts have worked hard to catch up with us. But the economy tanked so, no one is really doing that well. So these are the things I would have liked to do.
WONO: How do you rate OCPS now in terms of teachers’ salaries with other school districts?
Ronald Blocker: Well right now it is hard to say because some districts are still trying to negotiate salaries. If you look at us within the Central Florida region, not just the surrounding four or five counties, but rather eight or nine districts, we are probably the second or third highest, depending on the level, such as beginners. But regardless, teachers in general are underpaid.
WONO: I believe you will relinquish your position as Superintendent next summer. What are some of the important qualities and attributes a Superintendent should have to be as successful as you have been? What advice would you offer to your replacement?
Ronald Blocker: I would advise that individual to stay focused on academics. I would also advise that, there will not be a lot of money with which to pull this off, so they will have to be creative in how they try to bring revenue into the district. For instance, we market a lot of things in the district – we have naming rights to properties, we advertise on our Web site, we try to bring in revenue anywhere we can to help defray some of our costs. I think that my replacement needs to be strategic in his or her thinking because, you always have to stay ahead of the game; things keep happening and you want to maintain focus. And of course, the person definitely has to work with the community in achieving their goals and that would be, business, parents and community organizations, as well as, the political leadership in the area.
WONO: What’s next for Ron Blocker?
Ronald Blocker: Many have asked that question. The only thing I can say is, I will take time to reconnect with Ron Blocker since he has been a public figure for so long. It would be nice to just reconnect with Ron Blocker as a private citizen, and I also want to spend quality time with my family.
WONO: Mr. Blocker, thank you very much.
Ronald Blocker: Thank you, too.
More About Ronald Blocker
Ronald Blocker has led the nation’s 10th largest school district since July 2000. Under his leadership, Orange County Public Schools has been graded an ‘A’ district by the Florida Department of Education for three consecutive years.
In 2010 Mr. Blocker was named the District Reading Leader of the Year by the Florida Department of Education’s Just Read, Florida! division. In 2008, he was named the Florida Art Education Association’s Superintendent of the Year, and in 2007-08, he received the Florida Superintendent’s Award for Volunteer/Community Involvement.
Because of his influence in the community, Mr. Blocker was ranked tenth by Orlando Magazine on their list of “50 Most Powerful People in Central Florida,” published in July 2010; and as among the top 20 most powerful people in Central Florida by an Orlando Sentinel panel of community leaders in January 2010. In 2009, he was also chosen by the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission to receive its Chairman’s Award acknowledging his contribution to the economic success of the region.
Mr. Blocker holds both a specialist’s degree in educational leadership and counselor education from the University of Florida.
Contact: OCPS Superintendent Ronald Blocker
Educational Leadership Center
445 W. Amelia Street
Orlando, FL 32801
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