An Ocoee Knight's Tale


Changing Stars...

Can a person change their stars? Can a person born a peasant change their destiny and become a knight?...become part of the nobility? Can a person go from being "nothing" to being "something"? Those are the questions that are repeatedly brought up in the 2001 movie "A Knight's Tale". Lead actor, the late Heath Ledger, plays William, a boy who was born a peasant, but he had the dream of becoming a knight. He expressed his dream in front of a criminal in stocks and was told, "You might as well try to change the stars, boy." He asked his father, "Can it be done, father?" Can a man change the stars?" His father replied, "If he believes enough, a man can do anything."

(Spoiler Alert...if you haven't seen the movie, I'm not going to give it all away...just the beginning...but to be safe, skip this paragraph...the movie is worth a watch or two. If you have seen the movie, watch it again...very inspiring, with excellent music)

William's father ended up sending his young son away to live with a knight in order to change his stars. His father advised him, "He's a real knight, William. Watch and learn all you can. It's all I can do for you, son. Now go, change your stars, and go live a better life than I have."

Making a Difference in the Lives of Students

I was drawn to the field of education because I wanted to make a difference in the lives of students during their formative years. There came a point in my teaching career when I became dissatisfied with the difference I was making at the high school level, so I transferred from Boone High School to Apopka Memorial Middle School, hoping that if I was able to reach students when they were younger, maybe I could help them before they got off track. It was during these middle school years, while teaching computer applications and TV Productions, that I discovered I also enjoyed helping teachers with their technology needs, and I thought, just maybe, I would also enjoy helping them with other needs related to teaching and reaching their students. If I could become a school administrator and help teachers be successful, I could help many more students in the process through them. With this thought, I went back to school to get my Masters' Degree in Educational Leadership.

I earned my Master's degree, passed all the required exams, served as the 7th grade Dean of Discipline, and I was accepted into the Assistant Principal Pool. I could now apply for jobs as an Assistant Principal. There was only one problem...I still enjoyed teaching TV Production. I loved teaching. I wasn't so sure about administration--would I really be able to make a difference? Would I really be able to "change the stars" of students and teachers? I was second guessing whether or not I could change more lives as a teacher or an administrator.

Ocoee High School: Taking a Leap of Faith

About this time, a fellow colleague, Mel Gilbert, mentioned to me that he had accepted a history teaching position at the brand new Ocoee HS that was scheduled to be opened the following school year, 2005-06. He also mentioned that they still needed a TV Production teacher. I was definitely intrigued. I had just spent about $20,000 on my Master's Degree, but what is the price of really making a difference? What is the price of finding your destiny?

By a chance encounter, I was in a Publix supermarket, and I overheard one mother say to another, "I wasn't sure how my son was going to handle Mr. Armbruster leaving West Orange HS, but he seems to have adjusted." I didn't know Michael Armbruster at the time, but the question that came to my mind immediately was, "Why would a student really care who their Principal was...to the extent that their parents talk about their concern in a grocery store? This Principal must be doing something right. Only the best are entrusted with opening a brand new high school, with a brand new school culture. Maybe I could learn something from him."

I decided to take the jump. I showed up for my interview in a suit. Mr. Armbruster entered the portable where I was waiting and he was wearing a polo-golf shirt and shorts. He looked at a DVD I had brought of some of the work I did at Apopka Memorial Middle School, and he instantly said, "I like this. This is good for kids. Do you want the job?" He was different, I could see that already. But it was a good different. What was I getting into?

District upper management told me that if I went back into the classroom, and then I changed my mind, it would be two years before I could apply for an Assistant Principal position at any school within OCPS--I would lose the one year teaching, and then I would need to spend another year out of the classroom as a Dean, in order to be hired as an AP. But the way I figured. If I did ever decide to go back into administration, learning from someone that was recognized by OCPS as one of the best was worth the investment. The District doesn't give a new school to just anyone, and the mothers in Publix confirmed that this Principal was connecting with students and making a difference. If school administration was how I was going to spend the next 30 years of my career, this initial investment of a couple years would be worth it. I threw caution to the wind...I wanted to "watch and learn all that I could" from this Knight.

A New High School is Born from an Old High School

What I experienced at Ocoee HS can barely be put into words. Michael Armbruster spent the entire previous year planning a dynamic school culture that was designed to "change the stars" of students. Everything was thought out, and everything was student-centered. I later found out that Michael Armbruster was actually chosen to open Ocoee HS because of his ability to build a team and connect with students. Ocoee HS was going to pull from South Apopka, Evans HS, and North West Orange HS...three traditional rivals coming together as one. It was going to take someone special to bring those three areas together. The Superintendent at the time, Ronald Blocker, discovered that Michael Armbruster had something special when he attended the West Orange HS graduation in 2003. He saw the way the students, teachers, parents, and community responded to this gifted leader. It was at that graduation event that an idea for the new school was planted in the mind of the Superintendent. It was at that event where destinies began to change.

What are Ships for?

The big question was, "Would Mr. Armbruster want to leave West Orange HS?" He attended and graduated from West Orange HS. He played soccer for WOHS. He came back to coach soccer for WOHS. He was a community school coordinator at West Orange HS and he had 28 afternoon and evening programs that he worked with through Westside. Mike became an Assistant Principal at West Orange HS, and now he was the Principal of West Orange HS. He lived in the West Orange HS community...this was his school. And above all of this, his daughter and her friends would be attending WOHS in a couple of years...nothing is better than seeing your own child at school and at extracurricular events. WOHS was where Michael Armbruster wanted to spend the rest of his career, if possible. I guess a better question than would Mike Armbruster leave West Orange HS, is “Can a Principal really say, "No." to a request from the District to apply for the Principal of a brand new school?” The request also offered an opportunity to construct a school from the ground up...hiring everyone, building the bell schedule, putting student support programs in place...making something truly special. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and it was right down the road from his house, which just happened to be right between the two high schools. He was in the business of changing lives through education, and now, all of his skills would be put to the test. He could have played it safe and sailed in to the sunset at West Orange HS, but as William GT Shedd once said, “A ship is safe in harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.” Mike followed Mark Twain’s advice, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Mike took the leap of faith and applied for the position of Principal at Ocoee HS. Many others took the leap of faith to follow Mike…and many others are still leaping because of him.

Every Student Will Graduate

The motto of the school was, "Every Student Will Graduate". This was at a time when graduation rates, especially for certain demographics, were very low. Could a school environment be created that could literally "change the stars" of students that had historically been destined to fail? Could a school culture be created where everyone operated like a family? What would it take...what programs, what people, what actions, and what philosophies would need to be embedded into everything the school would do to change destinies? What were the results after five years?

Results:

In 2008-09, 90.8% of Ocoee HS students graduated. This was the fourth highest Graduation Rate in OCPS, with the twelfth highest Free and Reduced Lunch Rate, which means that there were strategies that were being used that were stronger than poverty. I am not into astrology whatsoever, but stars were being changed.

In 207-2008, Ocoee High School has the highest Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in OCPS at 92%. In 2008-2009, Ocoee High School had the 4th highest AYP in OCPS, all the while Ocoee High School was still 12th in Free and Reduced Lunch.

Other areas of success:

  • Newsweek’s Top High Schools (2 yrs)

  • 3rd lowest OCPS drop-out rate in 2008-09

  • 2nd highest graduation rate for Black students in 2007-08

  • SASC President (2009)

  • SECME Regional Champs (4 yrs)

  • -ECME National Champs (2 yrs)

  • Computer Science State Champs (3 yrs)

  • Science Olympiad Regional Winner (Central Florida)

  • District Drama One Act Winner 2009

  • MPA District Competition

  • Band: Straight Superiors 2009

  • Chorus: Straight Superiors 2008, 2009

  • Metro, District, & Regional Athletic Awards

  • Highest enrollment % in Valencia Community College for any

  • Highest Writing Score increase 2007-08

Positive things were taking place at Ocoee High School. Lives were being changed. The difficult thing about improving the school grade of a fragile school population is the fact that the state of Florida mandates require improvements on a certain timetable—by 10th grade? It takes longer to lift struggling students out of their academic troughs to a place of success, so Ocoee HS’s students may not have succeeded after one or two years at OHS, but after three or four year, students were succeeding and graduating, with Ocoee HS leading the way with the graduation rate of diverse populations.

The sad thing is this, the state of Florida and the school district don’t always understand what it takes to succeed, and what success really looks like. The state didn’t understand the dynamic, healthy culture and climate that was developed at Ocoee High School. The state didn’t understand how much students were excited to attend Ocoee High School. The state certainly didn’t understand that success with a fragile population will occur in small increments and small victories, until a tipping point is reached and academic success becomes embedded in the entire school community. It was happening. I saw it taking place. But when the state slaps a low grade on a school as measured by certain accountability measures that don’t take all of the facts into account, schools begin to play games with their data rather than focusing on helping all students enjoy school and find academic success. When the states slaps a low grade on a school during this high-stakes environment, depression and desperation set in and Districts and schools make changes that may not be good for students or teachers, despite how good they might be for a school's data and school grade. Suddenly, the primary purpose becomes secondary, data begins to drive the entire school culture. And so, schools learn to shift students, promote students so they aren’t tested, and withdraw students to get them off of their books. These are all tools schools can use to improve their grade without really improving student learning. Mike Armbruster did not use these measures. Mike Armbruster believed that every student that attended his school was his student, and the school's mission was that “Every Student Will Graduate”. The school district didn’t know the great things that were taking place at Ocoee High School. If they had, they would have never transferred Mike Armbruster out of Ocoee High School. It is truly sad that a Principal has to fight a three-front war in order to succeed in today’s world of high-stakes school administration—they must fight a legislature that understands very little about on-the-ground education, a district that may not have firsthand knowledge of the climate and culture of a school (the Area Superintendent must be actively involved in what is taking place at the school—visiting, listening to, and supporting the Principal, Students, and Staff), and they must fight for students that may have never found success at school, and they have to literally be talked into believing that they can succeed at school and reach the dreams.

What was taking place at Ocoee High School action research for improving student success through student-centered education. The Differentiated Accountability group that visited the school in November of 2009 made this statement, “This is a model Action Research Facility that we need to be sending other schools to visit." I saw amazing things taking place at Ocoee High School. I believe I was scarred, to some extent, by the destructive school grading system of the state of Florida and the misguided actions of the School District in moving a Principal that had risked all to build a unique school environment that could literally change the destinies of students.

We can’t improve education until we understand education. We need educationally informed voices on the School Board to help make education policy decisions that are good for students, teachers, administrators, and schools. We need strong voices in education that can influence voters in order to put pressure on the legislature to make education important, and in order to motivate them to seek to understand education from the ground up. If we fix education, we can solve a great deal of society’s challenges. Every child that receives a high-quality education is one less desperate citizen that must be supported or controlled.

What I believe made Ocoee HS successful…

Starting with Ocoee HS, whenever I left a school, I took a moment to reflect on all the great things at the school, and I included my Top 100 list in my goodbye email to the staff. Here's my Ocoee High School list. The list could be much longer. This list was created in December 2007...right before I left the school to become an Assistant Principal at Boone High School. I know that I left many things off, so please feel free to add to the list by making a comment about other things that were, and still are, truly awesome about Ocoee High School. I know that Michael Armbruster could write a much longer list of things that he purposely did to create a unique, dynamic, healthy environment for students and staffulty--a combination of staff and faculty...Mike may have created that word. All of these "things" come down to relationships and being student-centered, with an intense focus on helping students succeed. Ocoee HS had a very healthy culture and climate, and student success was happening, and the stars of many students were being changed right before our eyes.

The Top 108 Things I loved and learned from Ocoee High School and Mr. Armbruster... by Matthew Fitzpatrick

1. “Goooooooooood Morning Knights” – The power of starting each day with enthusiasm… 2. Strong academic learning environment—“Staffulty reading books together: Common Ground, Whatever it Takes, We Beat the Street, Teamwork. 3. Starfish Story—make a difference, even if it is only one child. 4. The Castle Hope built by the Building construction class…located behind the end zone on the football field. 5. Relay for Life blowout celebration event – a time to remember and be united in the search for a cure for cancer. 6. Free school shirt for every student, every year 7. Free OHS pens for students who wear school colors on first Friday of the year. 8. Free staff Polo shirt every year. 9. Spirit day every Friday---jeans and school colors. 10. 1 hr. Lunch--incentive to pass FCAT and earn a 2.0…students wanted to pass the tests just to have a longer lunch period. 11. “1 and Done” Card – Sci-Fi Card – Get in to all home athletic games free for students who passed the test on their first try, or for students who passed the Science FCAT. 12. Freshmen Mentorship Program during part of the hour lunch. 13. Principal attends events just about every night…even bowling ☺. 14. Principal with high expectations for himself and others. 15. Emphasis on sports records to give student athletes something to strive for, and something to look back on and show their children. 16. GPA Award for the top student GPA on each sports team. 17. Pizza Party for teams that beat the rival school. 18. Renaissance Rallies to celebrate students who are on track to graduate. 19. Spring Fling Week—especially the Newspaper Fashion Show. 20. Principal participation in homecoming week—Batman, wacky day… 21. Principal greeting students at front door every day…and enjoying it! 22. OOOOOOOK 23. 40 Developmental Assets—connecting students to positive influences. 24. Small Learning Community—Relationship based environment. Assistant Principals were the “Principals” of their schools – Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia. 25. 1st Day festivities…Pep Rally, Grade Level Speeches by Principal, and a free shirt…and students visiting every classroom on their schedule for 10 minutes. 26. Knight Fever—Open campus before the school year started…getting to know parents, teachers, students, programs, and the buildings. 27. Senior Day out at the football field. 28. Principal as the head cheerleader, wearing Ocoee logo stuff every day—also giving teachers the opportunity to order more shirts together. 29. Shields in the cafeteria representing each club and sports team 30. Culture of teachers helping other teachers and working together - PLC...Professional Learning Community. 31. Principal’s willingness to try to dance, double-dutch, juggle soccer ball 32. Curriculum writing in the summer 33. Trips to Stevenson HS in Illinois to see model school of PLC 34. Be the Change shirt, club, movement 35. Emphasis on Ruby Payne – understanding poverty 36. “College Focus” – Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Columbia –Mascot in the halls 37. Posting GPA averages of each sport during their season 38. Displaying articles from West Orange Times in windows 39. Knights of the Round Table – student recognition by Teachers each month. 40. Daily Dozen…things we all need to do as a staff, every day. 41. Student - centered decision making 42. Friday after school fellowship and treat for teachers – follow students out 43. Strong Leadership program for students…under Wendy Meyer Cartwright and Sheila Motley Jackson 44. Easter Egg hunt for top 100 academic students. 45. Reading reindeer – Pep rally – bring a book to attend…Books for the community 46. Champs discipline training with clear expectations. 47. Vision and mission … healthy community focused on learning. 48. Voice enhancement/projectors/plenty of computers [Technology] 49. Intensive classes to get students the help they need. 50. FCAT Boot camp 51. Coaches BBQ at the Principal’s house 52. PSAT – Paying for 9th/11th graders. 53. Senioritis speech in spring 54. 9th grade assembly – making HS count 55. Junior step-up 56. Senior walk-out – Leave earlier than the rest of the campus…less problems… 57. Administrative Dean Collaboration to make sure we are all on the same page and helping one another figure situations out. 58. Administrative meal together before supervising home football games 59. Bringing homecoming back to school 60. Coaches religiously send results of games to West Orange Times 61. Golf Tournament for all sports – booster club 62. Subway Athlete of the week 63. Senior student athletes of the year 64. Seasonal sports banquets together 65. Battle for the shield with West Orange HS. 66. AVID program to get students college-ready 67. Lock-outs – LOP…loss of privilege instead of lunch detention. 68. Counselors & Deans working together with students located within the same offices. 69. Miracle Movie – Coming together as a team to accomplish great things 70. “We Were Soldiers” mentality – 1st to arrive, last to leave 71. Blood drives…Knights paying it forward and giving back. 72. Teamwork group presentations during preplanning after reading the book “Teamwork” over the summer. 73. Christmas Craziness Party – usually some song by administration 74. “It’s a Beautiful Thing”…positive attitude about life. 75. Clean Campus with clubs and teams adopting different areas around campus. 76. Umbrellas with Knight logo 77. Coffee mugs with Knight logo 78. Lanyard pins – “Principal with the most flair in the county” 79. Safe Environment--Full Duty coverage during class changes/teachers at doors between classes, Admin in place before, after school, and during lunch. 80. Knight school to get kids on target to graduate 81. Top notch Fine Arts program – Principal attends everything – writes reviews 82. George Morse – The “Go to Guy”; every school needs one. (Of course, every campus also needs a Cheri Godek, Laura Beusse, and Mary Bridges handling Master Schedule, Data, Testing, etc. 83. Singing the Alma Mater after football games with OK lifted high 84. “Read” Posters of staff members 85. Crash car out front – Drive safely 86. Student faculty basketball game 87. JROTC program 88. Talent show 89. College acceptance letters posted on windows 90. Scholarship pictures in trophy case/newspaper 91. One of the most spirited marching bands in the land…hats off to Bernie Hendricks 92. SECME champs - Southeastern Consortium of Minorities in Engineering. Awesome Computer Science program. Hats off to Seth LB Reichelson 93. Freshman – ½ hour lunch – and hour in freshmen mentorship class with upper class mentors. 94. Dodgeball days in courtyard 95. Tug-of-war – Girls vs. Guys…until the rope broke 96. Admin collaboration/lunch together 97. Family atmosphere – (I know Bill – I’m leaving the family) 98. Biggest Loser Contest 100. Powder puff and bonfire 101. The Knightly News 102. The Intellectual Playground (The Media Center) 103. The “O” Show 104. The Sword in the Stone – thanking another staff member. 105. Class Graduation Year handprints in the hallways. 106. Early childhood enrichment program. 107. Outstanding Dance program 108. The Moment of Silence…to gather my thoughts and remember what is important.

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