The School District of Palm Beach County
My experience as a young immigrant in America is the reason that I believe so strongly in public schools. We must never overlook some students in the quest to provide an excellent education to others because equal opportunity is not only the heart of American education – it’s the heart of democracy.
Robert Avossa has something in common with many of today’s struggling students: as a child, English was his second language. An Italian immigrant, Robert’s family was drawn to America’s economic opportunities and strong public education system. For the first four years of his schooling, Robert struggled to learn English. As superintendent of The School District of Palm Beach County in Florida, he refuses to forget what he and his parents faced back then or how many Palm Beach students and their families now share similar challenges.
After spending five years in senior roles in North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and four years as superintendent of Fulton County Schools in Metro Atlanta — two progressive urban school districts that have made great improvements on behalf of low-income students and students of color — Robert accepted the top post in Palm Beach in 2015. It is the nation's 11th-largest school district, serving more than 185 schools and 183,000 students who speak 150 languages and dialects. Two of those students are his children.
“When I watch my own children board a school bus, I know what it feels like, from a parent’s perspective, to want an active voice,” Robert said.
Providing parents, educators and the community with opportunities to have a voice in district and school decision making has been a hallmark of his leadership. When he first took the helm in Fulton County, Robert quickly began seeking the input of his fellow parents, putting more than 50,000 miles on his car in 16 months as he traveled from community meeting to community meeting. He discovered a common theme in these conversations: parents and teachers were frustrated with what they saw as a top-down, bureaucratic approach of the system.
Within months, Robert created a new, decentralized way of running schools. He established four “learning communities” that put decision-making closer to classrooms and parents. And he set what some might consider a lofty goal for student outcomes: by 2017, Fulton would have an on-time high school graduation rate of 90 percent, and 85 percent of students will be qualified to enter Georgia’s university system.
Under his leadership, Fulton County made considerable strides toward achieving those goals. As the district made impressive gains in SAT scores — moving from 25th in the state to second in just two years — and worked to enroll more African-American students into rigorous Advanced Placement classes,
local citizens demonstrated their support by approving a $740 million tax enabling Fulton County Schools to renovate school buildings and invest in technology upgrades.
Now back in his home state, Robert applies the same focus on expanding student opportunities and producing higher outcomes in an urban district that’s among Florida’s highest performing, but those overall results have historically masked some the state’s largest gaps in achievement. In just his first year, 21 schools rated D or F by the state’s accountability system raised their grades to a C or better. He consolidated the district’s central office to free up millions of dollars a year to support students and educators in the district’s lowest income schools, and he’s focused the district on expanding access to college-preparatory coursework. All the while, he’s sustaining the kind of employee listening tour most superintendents reserve for their first 100 days on the job — that way, he always hears the on-the-ground assessment of what’s happening and what’s needed in every corner of the district.
“Any parent will tell you that their dream for their child is not just to do well in K-12, but to go on to do great things in life,” said Robert. “I want every child to realize the same opportunities my parents strived to give me.”
Began his career as a public school teacher and principal
Chief Academic Officer & area superintendent, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Superintendent, Fulton County Schools
Superintendent, The School District of Palm Beach County
The School District of Palm Beach County
Serves nearly 183,000 students in 185 schools; the fifth-largest school system in Florida
Employs more than 21,000 teachers, support staff and administrators
53 percent of enrolled students qualify for the national school lunch program