The new Roosevelt Leadership Academy for Young Men that is slated to open in the fall is more than just another new choice program for the Palm Beach County School District.
For some, the academy — which will open at the old Roosevelt High School on Tamarind Avenue in West Palm Beach — represents hope for the revitalization of a community. They see it as a chance to rebuild the academic prestige for which the school once was known.
But that revitalization comes with a price tag — a nearly $7 million one, in fact. And with the district facing a $56 million capital budget shortfall, others question whether now is the right time to be putting money into this aging building.
“That’s a very tough choice that’s going to have to be made,” school district Treasurer Leanne Evans told the budget advisory committee this month. While changes need to be made to accommodate the kids entering the new choice academy, Evans expects every district construction project will need to be cut out of the budget to balance it.
Opened in 1950
When the idea came up to create an all-boys leadership academy, school board Vice Chairwoman Debra Robinson knew just where she wanted to house it — at the old Roosevelt High, now called the Roosevelt Full Service Center.
When it was built in 1950, it was one of two county high schools for black students. When it opened, it didn’t even have all of its furniture, and it used books passed down from white students at Palm Beach High.
But the school belonged to the community. It was theirs.
And beginning with its first graduating class of 101 students, it became an accredited school that turned out an impressive list of alumni that includes respected community leaders, accomplished athletes and prominent businesspeople.
“Roosevelt was a top school. It had everything going for it,” said Ineria Hudnell, who taught at Roosevelt for 18 years and has for more than 30 years been the unofficial historian of black West Palm Beach.
“The high school brought the whole community together,” Hudnell said. “We had everything for students. The whole neighborhood would come out for parades.”
S. Bruce McDonald shares those recollections. He became a prominent educator who spent more than 30 years working for the Palm Beach County School District, including a stint as a teacher and assistant principal at Roosevelt before being named the county’s first black principal of a majority-white school.
McDonald said Roosevelt used to be a cultural center for the community, offering plays, concerts and other events. It had dozens of extracurricular activities and sports for students.
”But if you look at the community now, there is no access to a library for kids,” he said. “There needs to be a cultural center in the area.”
In 1970 — more than a decade and a half after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision was handed down — district officials merged Roosevelt with the white Palm Beach High, naming the two campuses “Twin Lakes North” and “Twin Lakes South.”
Roosevelt High eventually was turned into a middle school. The middle-schoolers later left the building at 15th Street and Tamarind Avenue for a new Roosevelt Middle School a block away.
The old Roosevelt High began to fall into disuse; it was renamed the Roosevelt Full Service Center, and it housed a few alternative programs over the years, as well as a charter school.
In 2011, the alternative school program moved to Riviera Beach and became the Riviera Beach Preparatory & Achievement Academy. Since then, the Joseph Littles-Nguzo Saba Charter School has taken up residence in a portion of the building.
“Roosevelt has a history of excellence. Many educators you find throughout Palm Beach County attended that facility,” said Elaine Hubbard-Williams, assistant principal at Riviera Beach Prep. “Some of the charter programs (that were housed there), it didn’t put a positive light on the place. With such a long history of academic achievement, the community wanted something positive, to bring a positive light to that building again.”
No money for repairs
For the past few years, a West Palm Beach-based group of residents has been pushing to revitalize the historic school.
It’s the second-oldest school in the district, aside from the adult education center, to never have received a major renovation or modernization, according to district records.
But the timing may be off for that revitalization, which district officials say will cost $6.7 million.
Unless something is done to help bolster its capital budget coffers, the district says it won’t even be able to afford some of its maintenance and technology needs, much less major construction projects.
But Robinson and members of the West Palm Beach community contend that now is the time to invest in this school and this choice academy.
“We have a beautiful dream. We finally have district leadership that supports the dream. Then we run into the budget wall,” Robinson said during a community meeting at Roosevelt in December.
The choice academy, open to all male students who want to apply, initially will serve about 100 sixth-grade boys, with more grades added in subsequent years.
Already, 27 students have applied for the academy, with the understanding that it would be held at Roosevelt.
Robinson said one option would be to temporarily house the choice academy at Riviera Beach Prep, of which the academy is technically a part. But just as quickly, she and community members discounted that option, saying that it would be all too easy for the academy to remain stuck there, with the Roosevelt building continuing to languish.
“I want the board to understand that this is not just another program, it’s not just use of another facility,” Robinson said during a school board workshop last month. “This is really, in a sense, bringing back the Roosevelt of old.”
Robinson said the district recognizes its black male population has a lower graduation rate than the general population and she said this academy aims to help combat that. For the 2011-12 school year, the county had a graduationrate among black students of 64.8 percent, compared with an overall graduation rate of 77.02 percent.
District officials noted that only 37 percent of the county’s black students are proficient in reading, a statistic the district wants desperately to change.
“There’s a dramatic number of young males that are lost because they haven’t been captured at an early enough age,” said Jeff Pollard, principal of Riviera Beach Prep. “We believe this initiative will allow us to reach them at the middle grades level to mentor them.”
New roof needed
Still, numbers are numbers, and the district has to get to a balanced budget.
The district already has OK’d spending about $364,000 to do minor renovations to prepare Roosevelt to open — such as painting, minor air conditioning repair, new furniture and technology, and cleanup inside and out.
But the larger renovations are still needed.
“Unfortunately, Roosevelt Full Service is one of our oldest schools,” said Jim Kunard, the district’s director of facilities services. He said the building has needs that can’t be fixed piecemeal.
For instance, it needs a new roof, a fire alarm system and major upgrades to its intercom system and parking lot.
One commenter at the community meeting, James Green, said he thought the district’s investment to upgrade Roosevelt was worth it.
“Look at the money wasted by kids not graduating, and look at the money that can be brought back to the economy (with kids graduating and contributing to the community),” he said. “The return on investment is much greater than $6.7 million.”
A source of community pride
When Roosevelt High School was built in 1950, it was one of two county high schools for black students. And when it opened, the school didn’t even have all its furniture; but soon it was thriving.
Roosevelt High had a first graduating class of 101 students. Commencement was held in the school’s gymnasium, the floor of which had the school’s mascot, a devil, painted on it by an art and local historian teacher, Ineria Hudnell.
The school offered dozens of activities, sports and clubs for students, and focused both on academics and extracurriculars.
It’s alumni boasts some of the county’s prominent community activists, athletes and businesspersons.