Interview with Dr. David Christiansen – Principal, Evans High School
Conducted by: West Orlando News Online
Date: December 23, 2011
WONO: You are about ten days away from the opening of the new Evans High School. What are your emotions? How are you feeling at this point in time?
David Christiansen: Just absolute excitement and anticipation. It’s been such a long time coming. At one point Evans was going to close and we were going to change the location. We’ve been living in a 9th grade center with sub-par facilities for years, with 85 portables, no gym, no auditorium. So, I think it really is a kind of a rebirth of Evans. On the commemorative shirts we decided to put “Evans High School Born 1958 – Reborn 2012”, because we really feel it is the rebirth of not only Evans, but Pine Hills as well.
WONO: What are the plans for celebrating the opening of this multi-million dollar complex?
David Christiansen: On January 21st we are having three events. At 10:00 am there will be a parade from Powers and Silver Star Road to the new school. We want the entire Pine Hills and the rest of the Central Florida community, at large, to come out and celebrate with us. On the parade route, Silver Star will be closed completely and once we get to Pine Hills that too will be closed. It’s a major parade – we’re having, I think, 60 different organizations and floats, and there will be several bands too. We’ll have, obviously, our Green Machine marching band. So, the parade will last about an hour, and then at noon, at the stadium, we’ll actually have a dedication ceremony. That will be about a 45-minute ceremony, and that’s expected to be be quite powerful. I would encourage everyone to come out to the stadium. There will be food, drinks, shirts, everything that anyone would want while they wait for that. So, they could go to the parade, come to the stadium, have some lunch, and then the actual dedication ceremony will be at noon. Immediately following the dedication ceremony, we will open up the campus, so there will be an open house. Anyone from the community at-large can actually come in and see this beautiful facility.
“This new campus is bigger than just bricks and mortar, it represents something special and something meaningful and kind of a re-birth. It’s a new day at Evans and in Pine Hills and I think it’s symbolic of the transformation of our community.”
WONO: What’s the new campus like? What are some of the new facilities?
David Christiansen: Sure. The performing arts center is beautiful; it’s on par with a college or university performing arts center. It’s got the same light system as Edgewater High School, and this is an upgraded light system from what high schools have traditionally received. Tthe performing arts center seats 900. It’s a very large space and has state-of-the-art sound boards, so the sound is beautiful and crisp. In fact, our drama department did Christmas Carols the Tuesday before the break, in the new performing arts center. Also, our band and choir did a Christmas concert too. You just have to see it to believe it; it’s hard to articulate just how amazing it is.
Secondly, we got a new gym. This gym seats 2,300 persons and there’s a beautiful new floor. We are going to rededicate it actually on January 6th as the “Snake Pit”. You may know, our previous gym was called the Snake Pit and it earned that moniker from an opposing coach that said, “I don’t want to play there, it’s like a ‘Snake Pit.’” The 1975 state championship team is coming back, including Darryl Dawkins, for the re-dedication. Of course, Darryl Dawkins went on to the NBA and was one of the first high school players drafted directly to the NBA by the Philadelphia 76ers. That is an exciting event that I want you to put on your radar, as well.
Then, there’s the administrative suite which is exciting because from Silverstar, it looks like a large atrium, and there’s a Trojan head in there. Half of the administrators’ suite will be the community school. If you recall, we’ve signed a 25 year partnership with UCF Children’s Home Society and JP Morgan-Chase to start this community school which will provide holistic services to our kids, parents and the community. These will include, physicals, vision screenings, dental and more. Many of our students haven’t had access to healthcare in the past, now they will. The community school opens in August of 2012, officially, but they will start offering some services before. We will kind of have a soft opening in January and people will be able to see a lot of the resources that are available.
There is also a guidance suite where we have a college and career resource center, which is accessible to the courtyard. You look out onto this beautiful courtyard – it’s essentially the largest courtyard of any high school. It’s a big triangle and there’s beautiful landscaping and it just has the feel of a college campus.
Then, there are the actual classroom buildings and these are, three story classroom buildings. Each room is 1050 square feet, so they are a little bit larger than normal and each classroom has three windows. There is research which shows natural light helps learing and academic achievement, so that was kept in mind. In the past we were in a facility on the old campus where everything was interior – there were no windows and everything was in pods. Now these are actual classrooms with windows.
Also, each classroom will be equipped with audio enhancements – there are speakers built into the ceiling and a microphone, so teachers won’t have to raise their voices over the students. And then, you also have a Smartboard in each classroom, which allows the teacher to manipulate digital content and teach in the way we are capable of. So, we are literally going from almost no technology, to the best technology. Some classrooms too – the math classrooms – will have what’s called tablets or slates where students can answer questions on the tablest and they will appear on the Smartboard. As well, the writing classrooms have doc cameras, so they can put their writing on the Smartboard and they can manipulate it via the doc cam. It’s really impressive. Also, on each hallway there’s flex-space and we’ve never had this before. What it is, is a computer lab that allows for small group tutoring and individual tutoring. Let’s say a student is struggling in Physics, you could pull that student out of the Physics class to the flex-space and give that child individual tutoring, or small group tutoring. With all the testing that happens now on computers, you can test in this flex-space, as there are 28 computers on each hallway and each classroom is equipped with 5 desktop computers. We use a rotation model in English, Social Studies, and reading, where students rotate on the technology, once a week they are able to go on and, maybe, write to a prompt on the technology or answer critical reading questions on the technology. It’s pretty impressive.
The cafeteria is new as well. There’s a very large interior space and there’s also outdoor dining with hardtop tables and outdoor furniture. It’s kind of an indoor, outdoor dining experience for the kids.
WONO: Doctor Christiansen, you have worked hard to improve educational achievement over the years, but Evans still has a ways to go. What are your plans going forward and how will the new school help to improve this?
David Christiansen: I think what we need to do now is show that Evans has everything any other school has. That has never been the case the past; we’ve had inadequate facilities. It was hard sometimes, to talk to parents and say, “Well, Evans is as good as Olympia or as good as Edgewater,” when Edgewater and Olympia had superior facilities and technology. Now, that argument holds water and is relevant with parents. So, that’s number one.
Secondly, you have a situation where there really are no excuses. Yes, there’s poverty in Pine Hills, yes there’s challenges and so forth. But, even with the sub-par facilities that we’ve had, we’ve raised our graduation rate from 49% to 80%. In order to move it further and get it above 90%, this type and level of academic regiment is going to help improve that.
Some people have said, “Well, it’s (the new school) just bricks and mortar, what’s the difference?” Well, I think, that would be the third piece – the student pride bit. Students need to be proud to be a Trojan, they need to be proud to be at Evans High School, and now they have absolutely no reason not to be.
I would say, we will continue to increase our school grade, we’ll continue to increase our graduation rate and the new school will have lasting impact on the stability within Pine Hills. In the past what would happen is, Pine Hills has been marginalized and parents have avoided Pine Hills schools. They have tried to sent their kids to other public schools or, maybe, charter schools. And when you have that, you have an instability in the area and I believe it also affects, home values. So, I think, long term, you’ll have Pine Hills become more of a stable area where our property values can increase, because you’ll have the academic facilities and achievement that’s on par with any other area.
“You have a situation where there really are no excuses. Yes, there’s poverty in Pine Hills, yes there’s challenges and so forth. But, even with the sub-par facilities that we’ve had, we’ve raised our graduation rate from 49% to 80%.”
WONO: Several years ago Evans High School was rated number two nationwide in terms of its Junior ROTC, what’s the status of the program now?
David Christiansen: We’re still in the top 100 in the nation. The program is still very strong. It’s been a distinguished unit for six consecutive years, which only goes out to about 5% of the ROTC units across the country. The challenge has been for Captain Beasley, in that, literally he was in portables and all our uniforms and everything were in storage bins. Obviously, we didn’t have a field to train on, we didn’t have a track, we didn’t have any of the necessary things you need in order to run a successful ROTC. But, he still was able to do it and make ends meet. Now he is going to have the appropriate resources. So, we will continue to raise the bar with our Junior ROTC.
WONO: You talked earlier about the community school and I am aware that this will open in the fall. How do you see the community school helping to improve and change things?
David Christiansen: I think the community has the opportunity to really help define what the community school will offer. For example, Pastor Thompson, from the Worship Center, chairs the community leadership council. What I would do is encourage folks to contact him or contact the community leadership council, because we are still in the process of defining exactly what we will offer. We are almost at the point of getting a federally qualified health center, that is, Evans becoming a health home for families and kids. That’s pretty rare. Usually when you have health clinics on high schools it’s to address minor issues and you have to direct them to an actual doctor or wherever the medical resources are to meet the particular needs. What we are trying to move towards is, literally having all health needs met at Evans High School. Sure, certain medical services will have to be farmed out, but the health home is kind of like a doctor’s office – the first stop and then, if you have a particular medical issue, we would find a specialist to deal with it. So, that’s what we are trying to have Evans High School become.
And what we would like to hear from the community is, if that’s what they want, what particularly would they want in the health services and beyond this, what other needs would the community like us to service. When you think about being open until 9:00 p.m., what programming do the adults want in Pine Hills? For example, do they want violin lessons? Do they want second language teaching, for example, learning how to speak Spanish or English? At the end of the day, what are their needs. I think, if we have that open dialog and open communication we’ll be more successful. I think, what has happened a lot in Pine Hills is, resources have come in and out, probably millions of dollars have come in and out, on various grants and support, but it hasn’t always stayed. What we’re looking to do is make these resources stay and not have someone who lives in, say, Lake Mary gain resources from what is supposedly being offered to Pine Hills.
“I think the community has the opportunity to really help define what the community school will offer…. because we are still in the process of defining exactly those services.”
WONO: You mentioned the importance of community involvement, how have you gone about getting that input, so far?
David Christiansen: The major aspect so far was, UCF going out and canvassing the community. A qualitative study was done based on surveys undertaken by UCF students and that’s been the most successful piece of getting community input up to this point.
The other successful piece would be, the establishment of a community leadership council. There are key players in Pine Hills, for example, pastors and so forth, that are part of that leadership council. Sometimes, you are going to hear things from your community you may not always want to hear, but you need to hear.
Someone compared Pine Hills, at one point, to Afghanistan, in that, it is very territorial and somewhat fragmented with all these little fiefdoms. There’s not really a unified sense because, Pine Hills isn’t like a city, it’s not an incorporated city or anything like that. You don’t have one or two, kind of, go-to people that can be held accountable for Pine Hills. I think, what we are trying to break down is some of those barriers that have existed in Pine Hills which have made it, somewhat dysfunctional, at times.
WONO: As you said, Pine Hills is not particularly unified. But, how were you able to endear yourself to the community? When you were first appointed principal you were perceived as an outsider, so what was the turning point?
David Christiansen: I would say, even though the community can be diverse or not unified, people are able to see through the talk and the face value of things, and see if someone’s actually there for the right reasons. I would say that’s true on a micro-level with students, especially high poverty kids. They can look at you and probably within a minute or so, figure you out. And they know if you are there for the right reasons, they know if you really care about them, if you will do anything to help them.
For me, I think, making it clear why I’m here and letting my actions speak louder than my words, have been critical. Some have said, “You can’t be successful at Evans because, you’re white and middle class and it’s not possible.” Well, my race and class, socially and economically, are not relevant. What’s relevant is, do I care, am I in this for the long haul, what am I really trying to do to help and bring about positive change. I think they’ve, for the most part, been able to see that. I did go out to some churches and that certainly helped. Also, I’ve gotten to know people individually. I think the kids clearly see me for what I am and that’s someone who is on their side and is not in it for any other reasons.
WONO: Parental involvement, traditionally, has been quite low at Evans High School. Do you see that changing and what’s the situation now?
David Christiansen: That’s the key to the community school, and we have been trying to break that cycle of low parental involvement. About half of our kids don’t have a biological mom or dad at home, so, the guardian, or the aunt, or whoever it is, may be, working multiple jobs and might have other significant responsibilities.
There is also a natural evolution that happens as kids go through school, in that parents or guardians are highly involved in elementary, then it starts tapering off in middle school. In high school, sometimes based on the teenagers’ attitudes, but also just the fact that they feel like the kids should be more independent at that point, the involvement really tappers off. And that’s really true of any high school – you do have a tapering off at that stage. However, we were able to get a three year grant through United Way for a parent coordinator, for the community school. So, for example, this year our PTSA has doubled of what it traditionally has been. We’ve had very active PTSA meetings, we have more parents plugged into Facebook and some other things. We’re also trying to do reach out and engage with our alumni. We have a Public Ally, an Evans graduate who is spending all of his time creating an alumni data base. I think you really have to get creative. When I first got to Evans in 2007, I had an orientation event and four parents showed up. We had our band there, we had the cheerleaders, we have a big show for these four parents. And I remember at the time, I felt like, I’m a failure here. This is not going to work. I really wanted to quit, to be honest. But what we realized when we talked to parents, they said, “Look, we can’t come at night, can you come up with a different time?” So, we went to having PTSA meetings on Saturday mornings and we had 1,700 people show up. I mean, Grandpa, Grandma, families – they will come, but you have to be creative about when you do things, what you do, how you get the word out. We had to get it out to the Haitian community in a different way. It really comes down to that.
WONO: What’s the size of your student body now?
David Christiansen: 2,200 students. We are up 300 from last year.
WONO: Finally, what message do you want to send to students and the community?
David Christiansen: My closing message would be, thank you for helping make this happen. This new campus is bigger than just bricks and mortar, it represents something special and something meaningful and kind of a re-birth. It’s a new day at Evans and in Pine Hills and I think it’s symbolic of the transformation of our community.
WONO: Dr. Christiansen, thanks for your time.
David Christiansen: Thank you, too.
Brief Bio – Dr. David Christiansen
As Principal of Evans High School (Orlando, Florida), David has led efforts to establish a successful AVID system, International Baccalaureate (IB) program, Advanced Placement (AP) program and career/industry certification programs.
As a result of these efforts, Evans High School was #1 in Orange County and in the top five in the state of Florida in improvement on FCAT (state standardized test), Graduation rate and dropout rate. Evans High School is an urban, inner-city school with a 97% minority rate, an 85% free and reduced lunch rate and an 87% mobility rate. After working with the elementary and middle school feeder schools on establishing a K-12 AVID system, Evans increased the school’s graduation rate from 49% (2007) to 80% (2011). David was selected as Orange County 2009 “Principal of the Year” by the county PTSA, 2010 ESOL Principal of the Year for Orange County, Fine Arts 2007 “Principal of the Year” by OrangeCounty Public schools and was a finalist in the Orlando Sentinel Central Floridian of the Year in 2009.
David is in his 20th year in education and his 9th year as a high school principal. Before going into educational leadership, David was an English and Journalism teacher, yearbook/newspaper sponsor and boys soccer coach at Dr. Phillips High School and Edgewater High School in Orlando, Florida. David lives in College Park, Florida, with his wife Kim and three sons, Owen, Dane and Dawson.
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