School district’s senior managers try teaching for a day

JulieAnn Rico typically spends her day navigating the legalities of operating one of the country’s largest school districts, but Monday morning she was surrounded by much smaller clients — kindergartners. Her cellphone was on lockdown and her work banter was about “Max” the elf on Ms. Troy’s shelf, who apparently came down with a cold over the weekend.

Rico, whose title is School Board general counsel, was embedded in this classroom assignment at Plumosa Elementary School in Delray Beach from 7 a.m. to about 4 p.m. She is one of more than 60 senior staffers at the district who walked in teachers’ shoes for the day — which is precisely why today she wore flats.

The exercise was one cooked up by Superintendent Robert Avossa, who spent Monday in a classroom, a room of fourth-graders at Jerry Thomas Elementary in Jupiter.

(Avossa got both lesson plans and a pep talk days in advance from Barbara D’Amico, whose room he was to commandeer. “I told her I was a little nervous and anxious and she reminded me that I was once a teacher and the kids couldn’t wait to meet me.”)

Among those also dispatched to classroom duty: the district’s chief financial officer, the director of transportation and the head of information technology. Their subjects: Seventh grade civics, fourth-grade math, and high school computer science.

“I’ve never done this before,” said Avossa, who said he is hoping to bridge the disconnect between making decisions about classrooms and working in one. “The debrief exercise should be telling.”

Lesli Troy, an 11-year teaching veteran, welcomed the opportunity to share what goes down in her classroom.

For example, Troy spent precious minutes before the first bell showing Rico how to trouble shoot when a kindergartner accidentally ‘logs out’ of computer time mid-session. Getting 5-year-olds to coordinate mouse and keypad through long numeric IDs is tough — and doing it while you’re supposed to be reading with a table full of students elsewhere in the room only adds to the challenge.

“A large part of my day is teaching, but then there’s planning, organizing, parent phone calls. I get here at 7 and usually don’t leave until 4 every day just to get everything done,” Troy said.

Walking in her shoes?

“It’s something Palm Beach County personnel should do a little more often. A lot of them haven’t been in a classroom — ever,” Troy said.

That wasn’t the case for Rico, who majored in education before heading to law school. She did a stint as a student teacher in a first grade class many years ago.

Rico knew going into college she wanted to have an impact on education on a broad scale. Rico grew up in a home with immigrant parents who didn’t speak English. Her younger brother was dyslexic at a time when too many teachers wrote him off as “retarded” — that’s how they’d describe him to their mother, Rico said.

The description failed to recognize his talent for chemistry that has translated into a career in which he works for the pharmaceutical industry and holds several patents on drugs to treat cancer and the like, Rico said.

“Imagine if he’d been left behind,” said Rico, who said she found the day exhilarating and exhausting.

She was awed by the level of math she discovered. “They knew what a rhombus was and a trapezoid. They were making a triangle a square by adding another triangle.” And humbled by Troy’s ability to hit all the required marks of a vast curriculum so seamlessly.

“Up to the very last minute, they were engaged,” Rico said.

Her long-ago exposure to the classroom was enough to keep Rico from panicking with a room of kindergartners, and also informed her preparations, including those comfortable shoes for a day with few seated breaks and a weekend of building up her immune system with vitamin C — the elf on the shelf wasn’t the only one sniffling in Troy’s room.

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