By Allis Bodziak
Imagine this: it’s 2009. You’re put on a bus of noisy teenagers at dawn. As the morning ticks on, you soon see a rectangular building. It is bland, with few windows. Along the property are gates, and behind those gates are multiple makeshift trailer classrooms.
As you prepare to get off of the bus, you stash away your belongings.You must silence your cell phone and hide it. Should your phone make a sound or should your phone be seen, you run the risk of having it confiscated by a teacher or staff member.
You’re on a tight schedule; with only a few minutes for the long walks between each class, you learn to walk quickly. Finally, your classes are packed with standardized tests. You are constantly being timed, quizzed, and monitored as you take these tests. They seem to occur more than the actual lesson time. With these strict rules and helicopter style teaching, it feels more like a penitentiary than an institution of learning. Some students have attended for a short period of time and suddenly never return. Perhaps this is why the Department of Education rated this a “D” school.
In 2016, Boca Ciega High School students now have an entirely different experience.
Despite the gates out front, the school itself looks more akin to an affluent shopping mall than a school. There are vaulted windows in the tall ceilings, allowing for floods of natural light. The beige and white walls are now accented with upbeat minimalistic blue and yellow stripes. There is outdoor seating for students to enjoy a nice summer day as they eat lunch. The school has no trailers in sight, and as you walk the hallways of the buildings, you see flatscreen televisions lined a few feet a piece from each other.
The biggest change, however, can be best displayed in one man.
Despite his lifelong career in education, Miguel Vigue is a man who is reminiscent of a military solider. His peppered, buzz-cut hair and clean-cut appearance suggest he has an eye for detail. He is specific in his movement and choice of words. He likes numbers and routine, and it shows as he continuously checks his watch. All seriousness aside, Vigue is an amiable man with a welcoming smile and a firm handshake. Vigue began his journey in education years ago in New Hampshire, where he started out as a math teacher, eventually moving down to Florida as a Principal at Azalea Middle School.
As Vigue guides Mayor Rick Kriseman around the campus during a recent personal tour, shiny new classrooms are on display. One of these is the new mock newsroom—green screen included—for students to host the morning announcements live on the TV’s in the halls.
As the lunchtime announcements air, he remarks, “This is one way to get students engaged in school when they aren’t interested in other things like math or science.” Vigue believes that by engaging students in courses they’re passionate about, the learning will follow in all other subjects. When asked what role he believes teachers have in education, he responds, “The issue is a lack of passion. If you do not have a passion to teach, then you will not be able to inspire that same passion to learn in your students.”
The passion Vigue discusses is evident in the way he engages the students. As he walked through hallways and into the cafeteria, students hurried to remove their headphones from their ears and extended their hands to acknowledge their principal as he passed. Vigue did not go unacknowledged by a single student during the walkthrough of the school, and greeted each teen by name. He believes that having a dialogue with students is the best way to understand what the pupils need.
Given his strong numbers and the happy atmosphere on campus, his work seems to be paying off.
The Pinellas County School district was falling short in education in 2009, the year Vigue began his job at Boca Ciega. Only one high school in the county had earned a grade of ‘A’, while only two schools had received a rating of ‘B’. According to numbers supplied to the Department of Education, the graduation rate in the class of 2009 (the year before Vigue) was 66%.
The class of 2015, however, had an 88.79% graduation rate. Pinellas County has historically had issues educating the black community- from issues of hiring poor teachers to biased policies preventing black children from being placed in good schools- according to the Tampa Bay Times. Another large feat has been that out of 175 black students, 156 of them left with a standard high school diploma. A mere 11 students in the entirety of the class of 2015 received a GED- only two of them black.
Vigue does not take all the credit for this near 23 percent rise in graduation rates, rather, attributes this to his staff and a new hiring process. Each applicant receives an interview with Vigue, as well as a walkthrough and a few moments to interact with students. Vigue takes his hiring process seriously; his turnover rate is low at about 8 staff and teachers a year, the majority of which are due to retirement.
Perhaps this Bay Area high school could be a model for the counties’ schools that still struggle with educating its student body. Vigue was most recently recognized for his leadership at the school by the Pinellas County Urban Leaugue, winning an award for his outstanding role as a leader in the high school. The passion and effort that is brought into the school is evident, and it is felt in the interaction in the student body. As students fill the Cafeteria, the feeling is casual- a nice break in the academic setting. Students check their phones and share music as they sit down, which is not something anyone in recent graduate years might recall.
Maybe Principal Vigue’s stern-but-smiling approach to education is a step in the right direction of turning our “failure factories” into “future factories”.
Header photo from wikipedia.