Here’s To The Winners

Delray Beach won another All America City Award last week and that’s  a good excuse to write a whole lot of nice things about Janet Meeks.
Prior to winning last week, Delray had won the award twice before in 1993 and 2001.
Back then, the award recognized cities for three community projects. These days the award recognizes strides communities make for advancing reading scores.

Janet’s leadership on behalf of the Campaign for Grade Level Reading gained real, quantifiable results sustained over time.
When she asked a few people to serve as peer reviewers to look at other cities efforts, we all said yes.
After I read and reviewed the applications from a few communities I knew Delray would win.
We know how a city can impact education and based on the applications we read it was easy to tell that Delray is a pacesetter.
We should be. We’ve been at this a long time.

Since at least the late 80s when Tom Fleming led an effort called Sharing for Excellence.

Back in those days, Tom was a home builder and he became frustrated by the negative perceptions enveloping Delray’s schools. Young families weren’t buying homes in the beautiful Andover development because they didn’t want to send their children to Delray schools.
Realtors called it the “Delray Dilemma.”
So Tom and members of the community crafted a vision for education in Delray. It called for magnet schools, a new middle school, upgraded facilities and more. The City  got it done.

Mayors Tom Lynch and Jay Alperin were passionate advocates for education investing city monies to help improve neighborhoods near schools. Tom went on to serve on the School Board for 8 years, including 7 years as chair. He did a lot for education during his tenure.
Mayor David Schmidt was also a champion for education leading the city’s efforts to work with the School Board to build a new Atlantic High School, which the opening of career academies including an innovative Criminal Justice Academy in partnership with our Police Department.

The leadership around education in Delray came from all segments of the community. Residents of the Southwest Neighborhood pushed for a new school and the Village Academy was born.

The Greater Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce raised funds through a foundation to support local schools and teachers. Parents, volunteers, non-profits, business leaders all rolled up their sleeves to support better schools. It has made a difference.

Janet was there for many if not all of these efforts.
She became our education coordinator, served as the staff for the city’s Education Board and became our advocate at the School Board fighting for resources, boundaries, facilities, programs and to make sure our schools had solid principals.
The campaign for Grade level reading built on literacy efforts, chamber programs, the work of key non profits and other community partners.
She’s a huge asset to Delray.
Along the way, I’ve been lucky to call her a friend. She’s a fountain of knowledge, does her homework and cares passionately for kids and for Delray Beach.
Over the years, there have been whispers of cutting the position. Luckily they did not come to fruition because Janet Meeks has provided tremendous value.
Delray’s leaders have long recognized that schools are an important part of our community.
We have had our struggles but also our triumphs.
From an award-winning Montessori program at Spady Elementary and the IB and career programs at Atlantic to the creation and growth of the Village Academy to the terrific gifted program at Banyan Creek and so much more we have come a long way.
Obviously, there is more to do. Much much more to do.
But Delray has shown over and over again that a city can impact education, even when it’s not its direct responsibility. If we make the investment, we get the return. It’s just that simple.

The One, The Only Bill Fay

Bill Fay Jr., in his element.

Bill Fay Jr., in his element.

Every now and again in this world you run into a larger than life figure.
Someone whose spirit lights up the room and whose humor, intelligence and warmth make you feel like you’ve known him forever.
Bill Fay is that kind of guy. In fact, he’s the epitome of that kind of man.
Bill is the longtime principal of Banyan Creek Elementary School in Delray Beach. After more than a half century in education he retired this month. There were tears when he announced his intentions and laughter too. Bill is an institution, an original. He has left two generations of kids, teachers and friends richer for having known him.
Bill has earned a lifetime of accolades and hopefully decades to enjoy his family and friends.

While we share a birthday, I always liked to remind him that he was much much older than I was and a Red Sox fan to boot. But somehow that didn’t get in the way of our friendship. His love of children and of Delray Beach was infectious and I enjoyed every moment I spent with Mr. Fay. His aspirations for his students and his teachers were nothing short of creating the warmest, best learning environment possible so that kids could thrive. And they did.
There will be many more principals who serve Banyan Creek in the years and decades to come. But Bill Fay will never be replaced. Nor will be forgotten. The great ones never are and Bill Fay is a great one.
He came to Banyan Creek after a long and distinguished career in Massachusetts.
Some may have approached the job as a victory lap, a chance to stay busy and collect a paycheck after a long career in education.

But Bill approached the position with energy, passion and a strong desire to educate children, mentor young teachers and make veteran teachers even better. He wanted Banyan Creek to be a great school, a safe place that would nurture children and build community. And that’s what it became.
When I started The Education Times newspaper many years ago one of the first things I learned is that you could tell whether a school had a great principal the moment you stepped into the school. If the school was orderly, clean, bright, had art on the walls and smiling well behaved kids you knew they had a great principal.
When you visit Banyan Creek as I did often over the years you could feel the energy, friendliness and love that is Bill Fay’s essence.

His teachers were focused. His parents were–mostly–happy (there are always a few). And the place crackled with laughter and encouragement. Bill Fay was the orchestra leader and set the tone. The culture of that school reflected his magnetic personality and his drive.
Bill is an opinionated guy. That’s what happens when you care and you’ve been around long enough to see some genuinely ridiculous things. He did not suffer fools gladly and while he had respect for hierarchy he did not have much patience for BS especially if the nonsense got in the way of educating his kids.
He had some amazing teachers over the years and he sang their praises. That’s what great leaders do. They give credit to others and they are focused on the mission.
Bill wasn’t just content to build a great school at Banyan he was a champion of other schools in Delray Beach. He was a touchstone for other principals, a leader among leaders and was deeply involved in the city’s efforts to improve its schools.
He had relationships everywhere from School Board members to mayors and commissioners. From district officials to city officials, everyone knew and respected Bill’s knowledge of what was best for kids.
We joked about our affinities. He liked the Red Sox and Pats, I followed the Yankees and Giants. I appreciated his sense of humor but also his deep knowledge of how the system worked or in many cases didn’t. He’s been a resource for all who preceded me and all who followed.
Here’s hoping he enjoys his retirement. And maybe, just maybe he will weigh in now and again because Bill Fay is one of a kind and we need these guys now more than ever.

An Influencer Returns

TomFleming

There’s a name in recent Delray Beach history that gets short shrift.
It shouldn’t.
The name is Tom Fleming and the good news is he’s back in town after more than a decade in Colorado.
I had a chance to reconnect with Tom a week ago at The Green Owl and while we share a lot of history, we spent our time talking about current conditions.
Tom has a fascinating perspective because he has both a history of Delray and a fresh view having been away for awhile.
He’s also an expert on downtown revitalization having worked for years in Delray and then in Colorado.
In short, he gets it.
Tom is an adherent of the Main Street school of revitalization. The National Main Street Center uses strategies and tools that have been proven in cities nationwide to bring Main Streets back to life.
Back in the day, Pineapple Grove was an officially designated “Main Street” and volunteers and early visionaries worked together and executed brilliantly.
When I first became aware of Tom I was a newspaper reporter and he was a developer. Along with a partner, Tom was building the beautiful Andover neighborhood off of Germantown Road.
Back in the 80s Delray was not exactly a desirable real estate market.
The city had a poor reputation compared to some of its neighbors especially posh Boca.
One of the major issues was the poor reputation of city schools.
It was hard to attract young families to live in Delray because of this issue and realtors even coined a termed for the malady naming it the “Delray dilemma.”
Tom was sensitive to this issue but instead of throwing up his hands in despair he rolled up his sleeves and got to work crafting a plan called “Sharing for Excellence.”
The document served as a blueprint for improving local schools. It called for special programs called magnets, better facilities and a host of other strategies. The community and city quickly got behind the effort and the School District embraced the plan–impressed that a city was willing to step up on behalf of its children.
The effort was the start of a long tradition of Delray leading the way on education issues, becoming an example for other cities to emulate.
Tom was an igniter of that movement.
Shortly after, he ditched his real estate career and reinvented himself as an urban revitalization specialist becoming the staffer for Pineapple Grove in its early days.
The grove was the brainchild of Norman Radin, a really cool pioneer who cut hair by day and sparked a movement by night.
Tom employed Main Street strategies to lead a volunteer, member based movement to create a successful street north of the avenue.
I often think how hard it is to have one great street in Delray. We have a few and hopefully more on the way.
In the early 2000s Tom left for Colorado and I missed him. We all did. I missed our conversations about streets and what makes them cool.
He is a thinker. A smart guy who knows how to get things done.
He sparked a movement in education and a great district in Pineapple Grove.
He is–without a doubt–one of our Delray greats. I’m glad he came home.

If You Could See What We See

Dare 2 Be Great supports promising Delray students with a goal of bringing them back home.

Dare 2 Be Great supports promising Delray students with a goal of bringing them back home.

We just came off an election in which development was the main issue.

The level of debate that we had will be the subject of a future blog, but when we think of development in Delray Beach or Boca Raton we would be foolish to limit our discussion to height, density and traffic.

We ought to be talking about human development and how we can develop young people and create more opportunities for our children and grandchildren. If you want to create a sustainable village, invest in young people. Fortunately, we have a number of worthy efforts to get behind.

Today, I want to tell you about Dare 2 Be Great.

About five years ago, I reconnected with Morgan Russell, an early investor in Pineapple Grove over breakfast at Christina’s.

I met Morgan early in my tenure on the City Commission and while most business people were focusing on Atlantic Avenue, Morgan had his eye on Pineapple Grove, a neighborhood just north of “the ave”.

Morgan lived in the Grove so that he could better understand its rhythms and nuances. He thought it could be a special type of neighborhood but he wanted to make sure that his investments would be made in “the path of progress.”  So one day we met and he looked me in the eye and asked if we were really serious about beautifying Pineapple Grove. I assured him that we were. It would be a public private effort, with the CRA, city and property owners splitting the costs. Morgan invested, along with others, and we did our part and Pineapple Grove blossomed.

So when we sat down years later—after losing touch for a bit of time—Morgan was determined to give back. But he wanted his philanthropy to be an investment in Delray Beach’s future and on a napkin we sketched out a plan to create the Dare 2 Be Great Foundation. We recruited a stellar board of directors and over the next four years we invested in local kids by sending them to college and providing mentoring opportunities. It has been a remarkable experience for all involved.

Along the way, we expanded our reach thanks to a generous donation from Carl DeSantis and a new partnership with Florida Atlantic University. As a result, we are able to help more young men and women.

Last week, we spent two days interviewing finalists for scholarships. Our criteria are simple; we want to support and mentor the next generation of leaders in Delray Beach. Scholars must live in Delray, have a 3.0 gpa, substantial community service and a desire to come back home and pay it forward. As long as they maintain their grades in college, we commit to them for four years and informally do all we can to open doors for them when they graduate.

The best part of the program for me is the interviews. After we pour through applications and essays, we invite the stand outs to meet the board so we can get a sense of who they are. This year we invited a few others outside the board to sit in. They too, were blown away by the talent in this community.

The interviews are always emotional; there are tears when we hear their stories and also laughter and joy when these remarkable young men and women share who they are and what they want to be.

We hear amazing stories of young people overcoming crushing poverty, family dysfunction, violence, peer pressure, racial tension and health issues to become remarkable people. This year, we interviewed kids who lost their parents to murder and illness and a young man who was homeless and walked six miles to school in order to “change my situation.” His mother told him books were the way out and he listened.

These are young people who don’t succumb to their problems, but succeed in a miraculous way, because of them. All are determined to better their lives and are motivated by their difficult circumstances to succeed through the power of education.  Not all of our scholars come from difficult circumstances, but most do. We are looking to help those who we believe have the potential to be extraordinary contributors to our community. As such, this is an investment in Delray Beach. A bet on kids, who dare to be great.

As a result, we ask them about their lives here and whether they are interested in coming back after they complete their studies. We should be proud to know that these incredible kids love our city and are passionate about coming back home and making a difference.

Whether they live in stable homes or homes that are rife with problems they have a common love for Delray Beach and a common pride as well.

They talk about enjoying the beach and the “ave” and others talk about loving their neighborhoods even though,  remarkably some have never been to the beach or to a restaurant downtown.

When the City Commission goes into budget sessions this year, they ought to know that programs put in place by prior commission’s changed lives– literally transformed lives –and that the money devoted to programs such as Eagle Nest, The Youth Council, Delray Center for the Arts, The Arts Garage and afterschool and summer programs touched a whole bunch of amazing and beautiful children.

We interviewed a young artist who was inspired by Delray’s many arts events and festivals. We talked to an amazing young man who found a passion for construction thanks to his work at the Eagle Nest, a city/CRA program.

In years past, we have interviewed kids who were inspired by the Criminal Justice Program at Atlantic High which is staffed by our police officers and this year we talked to a brilliant young mathematician who dreams of coming back home to be a professor/researcher at FAU and who aspires to teach other kids how to love math.

Every year, after we get done interviewing and drying our eyes, the board has the same three conclusions.

  • We wish everybody in Delray can see what we are seeing. The beauty of our diversity, the quality of our kids and the potential that radiates from them when they walk into a room.
  • We wish everybody can see the civic pride they exhibit regardless of their circumstances. They love this town and they want to come back and help and we owe it to them to build a city of opportunities so that’s its possible for them to be here. We need to grow beyond food and beverage; wonderful industries but we need more. Their aspirations need to be a part of our discussion over the future of our city. These are our children.
  • We can’t help them all. And we struggle with some very hard decisions. We need to grow this program and we need to touch more lives. We need more people to invest in the next generation. The return on investment simply cannot be measured. P.S. We have virtually no administrative costs. And yes it does take a village so your help is needed.

Please consider getting involved. There is no better way to impact Delray than to invest in kids, especially kids who dare to do great things with their lives.

 

 

 

It All Begins With Education

Delray has invested over $11 million over the years.

Delray has invested over $11 million over the years.

Note: Last week, YourDelrayBoca.com co-founder Jeff Perlman was invited to speak at the Delray Chamber of Commerce’s annual new teacher breakfast. The breakfast focuses on education and allows local principals to introduce their new teachers to the business community. In honor of the first day of school, here’s a transcript of the speech.

“I’d like to thank Karen Granger and the Chamber for inviting me to share some thoughts with you this morning. I’d also like to thank all of the educators in this room for taking the time out of your busy schedules to be here.

 It’s important that you share the challenges that you face and the opportunities you see with the people in this room. Together, we may be able to meet some of those challenges and seize some of those opportunities.

I’m going to start off by making a big statement…but I think I can back it up.

So here goes…

There is no city in the state of Florida that has done more for its schools than the City of Delray Beach.

 

That’s a big statement…but I make it proudly and confidently, because I know what this city has done: Nothing Short of a major investment of time, personnel, money and political capital so that our schools and our children can have a better chance at a successful future.

This morning I’m going to give you a very brief overview of this city’s involvement in education over the years and also outline some future opportunities that I see and hope that we will pursue as a community.

First, I think most of us can agree that there is no more important pursuit in a community than education. It is the answer to just about all of our problems and the provider of just about all of our opportunities. Whether it’s redeveloping blighted neighborhoods, creating jobs, curing illness or healing a city—the strategy must always include education.

So to those who say that cities such as Delray Beach should mind their own business and not be involved in education, the answer is not on your life. It’s too important and it really does take a village to raise a child.

So with that belief in mind, Delray Beach, the city, needs, deserves and requires a seat at the table when it comes to educating our children.

And here’s why …if you are an educator… you want us at that table; Because Over the years we have had very good table manners, literally spending millions of dollars of taxpayer money to support our local schools.  $11 million at last count.

From investing in strategies to save Spady Elementary School  and insisting on a gifted program at Banyan Creek, to supporting IB programs at Carver and Atlantic—the city of Delray Beach has been there, with dollars, political support, ideas and strategies.

We even moved a high school because we thought it was important to have a modern campus with career academies and enough capacity to bring some of our children home to attend school here in Delray.

This is a city with a rich and storied history of supporting its kids, our teachers and their principals.

Starting with a program called Sharing for Excellence in the late 80s, we have proven time and time again that when we rally our community around the educational needs of our children, we are at our best.

In the 80s and 90s, our vision called for better programs and facilities and as a result we helped to save Spady with a Montessori magnet, enhanced Carver with a middle years IB and saw Orchard View planned and built a decade later.

When two members of our Police Department approached us with an idea for a charter school, we wrote a check and seeded that school which became Tomorrow’s Promise. It closed after a decade or so, but before it did, Tomorrow’s Promise touched hundreds of lives; and lowered crime in our city.

After the new high school opened, we dedicated police officers to the Criminal Justice Career Academy and our CRA financed real estate so that students in the Construction Academy were able to get hands on experience building a home and improving a neighborhood.

Village Academy exists because a neighborhood got together week after week after week and envisioned a better future—anchored by a school. And there’s more—Plumosa has been reinvented with the help of the city, business leaders and parents. Pine Grove is seeing improvements in its academic performance thanks to the energy of a young principal who works closely with local business leaders to fund some basic needs of students. But it wasn’t always that way.

When I moved to Delray in 1987, realtors talked about something called the Delray Dilemma…they were unable to sell homes because the reputation of our schools was so poor that young families, fled to West Boca and West Boynton where the district was building new facilities.

A weak town would have given up, but not this city. Historically, this city has come together to face its problems and we have always, always solved them.  If you want to know the difference maker in Delray, the secret sauce, that’s it folks.

 It’s not a complicated theory…but it takes hard work and courage to acknowledge problems, build consensus, work together for years and put your head down until it gets done. Visioning is important…you have to know where you’re going—but this is a city that gets results. And often those results lead to benefits you don’t immediately see, they accrue over time.

The move of Atlantic High is an interesting example…It allowed the district to add Career Academies and enabled us to stop busing hundreds of kids out of town, but  it also gave us Bexley Park, two new public parks, the Seacrest Soccer Complex and land for a new Plumosa. Was it controversial, you betcha. Did it pay dividends…yes and for decades to come.

So the history is rich and I can go on, to discuss Beacon Programs and partnerships with the Delray Center for the Arts and how Janet Meeks and I met for lunch many years ago at the old annex and discussed her idea to create a position in city government dedicated to education. We did. We were the first city to do that and Janet has done remarkable things.

But I think the important takeaway, especially as we enter a new fiscal year, is the philosophy that great cities invest and reinvent in themselves.

We didn’t have to do any of those things—but this city has never been just about providing the basics. This city has been about engaging our citizens, developing a vision and investing in our future.

We have a rich history of bringing those visions to life and we should not give that up without a fight.

We would not be the Delray Beach we have become if we didn’t make those investments.

But like every investment, you seek a return.

So I’ll conclude with some investments I think we should be making in the future.

First, we need a strategy to provide opportunities for our children to come back home after college to lead, grow and contribute to this community. We have done a good job with food, beverage and culture. We have created an environment attractive to entrepreneurs but we do not have the creative space they need to thrive.

Morgan Russell and I co-founded a foundation that is mentoring and providing scholarships to some of our most talented kids…it’s called Dare to Be Great. Being involved with that group has opened my eyes to the talent that exists right here in this community. Young people who are overcoming some amazing odds to excel…we owe it to them– as leaders– to create an environment of opportunity so they can come back and build the future. So how do we create a city of opportunity, so appealing that our kids will want to come back…

Well..

We should be teaching entrepreneurship in our schools, whether kids grow up to be entrepreneurs or not, the skills they will learn will serve them wherever they land. Hopefully, they’ll start and grow their businesses right here.

We should be investing in programs like Girls Who Code or Code Academy, to make sure that our students have the skills needed to compete and win in the 21st century.

We should be pushing-and I know we are—for an arts magnet at Carver. But that effort should be a community wide one…When this community works together, it succeeds. We’ve never failed to achieve the vision we set out to accomplish when we work together. Let’s start a campaign for a middle school of the arts.

We should be teaching leadership at all levels, alongside the basics.  Our community, every community, needs better leaders. We need to begin teaching these skills in our schools, perhaps Delray can become a national pacesetter in leadership education. It was Lincoln who said “the philosophy of the school room in one generation, will be the philosophy of government in the next.” We can sure use a few Lincolns…at all level of government.

We should continue to make strategic investments in select non-profits that serve youth whether its art classes at Delray Center for the Arts or children’s programs at the Arts Garage.

 In our work at Dare 2 Be Great, every single student we’ve interviewed has mentioned a community program that they experienced that turned them on…whether it was Atlantic High graduate Stephanie Brown who took  a photography class at Old School Square and turned that into a career or Joseph Elisma who came to Delray from Haiti at age 9 with just his father and the shirt on his back. He walked past gangs and temptation every day and ended up as an IB graduate from Atlantic. He was inspired by Atlantic’s criminal justice academy and wants to come back to Delray to protect and serve this community, his community.

Or Ian Mellul, who got involved with our youth council and decided that he wanted to devote his life to public service…he was a White House Fellow this year…and he’s measuring the drapes in the Oval Office…because he wants to be President.  Remember that name, Ian Mellul, he was inspired by this community and the investments we made. We have to keep making them, they make a difference.

We’ve never been about the lowest common denominator in Delray…a core value of our city has always been having a vision, investing in it and working together to achieve the dream.

Last week, Joe Gillie called me and asked if I wanted to have lunch with Libby Wesley…that’s a name all of us should know.  We throw around words like legendary and greatness all the time…well Libby is truly legendary…she is truly great. And she was an educator….who touched thousands of lives during her career and in her later years through the Roots Festival, which celebrated education, culture and art.

When we used to meet at City Hall  Mrs. Wesley  talked to me about a covenant; a bond, a pact made between people who want to see a city thrive so that all people could seize the opportunities created by a vibrant city. Whether it’s a job or a chance to go medical school or a place to experience art; community has to work for all if it is to work at all. I will say that again, community has to work for all if it is to work at all. And It begins and ends with education.

I’ll close with these words from Nelson Mandela, because they are so true and so important… we need to live and breathe these words: “education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”

We’ve changed Delray through our investment in education. There’s a more work to do.  Let’s go change the world.

Water Color Wednesday: Education

A deep dive into local education

A deep dive into local education

Have you seen the brand new education website, www.pbcedu.org?

If you haven’t , click on the above link and take a tour of education in Palm Beach County.

The website is the result of a herculean effort by the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County to present a more comprehensive look at education in our community and to overcome old perceptions with a more balanced look at the state of schools pre-K through post graduate.

The idea sprang from a goal setting workshop the BDB board held a few years back in Palm Beach. I was on the board at that time and one of the laments was that perception was lagging reality when it came to Palm Beach schools.

None of the business leaders gathered in the room that day had their heads in the sand—they understood that while progress was being made there were real issues and challenges still to be overcome.

But there was also a strong sentiment that education had evolved in Palm Beach County and that the whole picture was not being captured by either the media or companies looking to locate here.

So over the course of several months, a 40 member BDB committee that included a cross section of business leaders and educators from both public, private and parochial schools began meeting to discuss how to better market and present the true state of education in Palm Beach County.

The public/private partnership resulted in PBCedu.org, an attractive site that enables visitors to see the whole range of educational options and programs available.

The website marks the beginning of the task force’s effort to market and communicate the quality educational opportunities that exist in the county. Additional initiatives include integrating positive educational messages in all economic development marketing materials, creating a system for matching student interns with employers, ensuring that high schools have employers at job fairs from the industry clusters prevalent in Palm Beach County  and continuing to collaborate with CareerSource Palm Beach County and the Education Commission.

“When it comes to education, perception is not reality.  A strong educational system is critical to economic development,” said Kelly Smallridge, President and CEO of the BDB.

The site features mapping capabilities allowing visitors to look at educational options in different parts of the county and videos that bring the programs to life.

People familiar with the history of education in Boca and Delray know that city support for local schools has been very strong.

Delray Beach was one of the first cities to form an Education Board and hire a full time education coordinator.

The city has also spent millions of dollars assisting the district with programs, facilities and the like.

The Boca Chamber’s Golden Bell Foundation is renowned for raising substantial funds to support local schools and its economic development strategies tout higher education and the city’s A-rated public schools.

We urge readers of YourDelrayBoca.com to visit www.PBCedu.org and take a tour. The site is a monumental achievement.