It sounded, at first, like a bum assignment.
In the summer of 2015, Anthony Lockhart was plucked abruptly from his perch as principal of Delray Beach’s A-rated Atlantic High School and sent to oversee Lake Shore Middle School, a troubled campus in far-away Belle Glade.
What looked on paper like an unenviable transfer, though, was a call to action.
Lake Shore Middle had become the worst-performing middle school in the county, with a high crime rate, an F rating from the state and a recent revolving door of principals.
Incoming Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa challenged Lockhart to change the school’s direction, offering him a salary boost and a chance to tackle a big task at a campus where nearly all students come from low-income households in and around Belle Glade.
The 47-year-old veteran principal thought about the stakes, contemplated the 50-mile commute and talked it over with his wife. She gave him the OK.
That summer, Lockhart got to work quickly, calling up current and former employees for their take on the school’s problems. Soon he was implementing a host of new programs and rituals – Saturday sports-and-study sessions, bike giveaways for high achievers, “expectations assemblies” – and realigning the school staff.
“I needed optimistic personalities and people who wanted to win,” he said.
But mostly, he made himself a constant presence – standing in the courtyard with a bullhorn between classes, playing basketball with students on weekends, escorting kids to their front doors in dicey neighborhoods.
A year and a half later, Lake Shore Middle has made marked progress. Though its 660 students still struggle with some of the county’s lowest test scores, their passing rates have risen across the board, often dramatically.
The school’s state grade has jumped from an F to a C and the campus has been infused with new programs and extracurricular activities. The school now has a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math program, a new gifted program and has started teaching foreign language classes.
Test scores from the last school year tell a tale of quick progress.
The percentage of Lake Shore students passing the state’s language arts exam rose by five percentage points last year, to 28 percent. This in a year in which the county’s overall performance was flat.
On the math exam, even as the county’s passing rate dropped, Lake Shore Middle’s improved by double digits, rising 11 points to 36 percent.
On the science exam, Lake Shore’s passing rate rose by 8 points, while the county’s overall score fell. In social studies, the school’s scores skyrocketed by 16 points to 53 percent.
Though administrators say Lake Shore still has a long way to go, it’s a dramatic turnaround for a middle school that had been occupying the county’s bottom academic rung.
Lockhart, a rousing speaker with a perpetual bow tie, said much of the improvement owes to an approach that he encourages his teachers to take: treating students holistically and with esteem, as if each of them were star athletes who just need to fine-tune their skills.
He memorized most students’ names, visited parents at home and was even known to show up at students’ Sunday church sessions. After classes, he began waiting with students in a park across the street while parents came to pick them up.
“In some of the places where you might not ever see an administrator, you see Dr. Lockhart out there knocking on doors,” said School Board member Marcia Andrews, who represents the Glades region. “He takes them home. The parents know him. He’s out there at night and on the weekends. He’s everywhere.”
To bring new offerings to the school, Lockhart has channeled money from grants and donations from businesses like Florida Crystals. Jack “the Bike Man” Hairston, who runs a bike-giveaway charity, brought a trailer full of bikes that the school gave away to students who improved their test scores.
Playing basketball with students on Saturdays enticed many to come out for an extra day of studies and sports, and allowed students to relate to him more as a coach than an administrator.
“It made me a little bit more accessible,” he said. “That built a bond.”
He’s made reducing suspensions a key focus, working to de-escalate fights by getting students to face their own culpability and commit it to writing. Records show that reported crimes fell by nearly half last year and suspensions dropped by 24 percent.
“He believes in them and he uses himself as an example all the time,” Avossa said. “He’s a very inspirational man and he motivates them.”
Lockhart, who grew up in West Palm Beach and has served as a minister, has deep roots in the area’s educational and religious worlds. His brother, George, is principal of Lake Worth High School, and several other family members have worked as teachers.
Avossa, who said he was “blown away” by Lockhart’s focus, sees his transfer to Lake Shore and the resulting changes as a model for reforming the school district’s leadership culture, one that he said too often rewards talented administrators with jobs at high-achieving schools, where their talents are less essential.
Instead, Avossa said he would prefer to send more top principals to schools struggling with low student achievement.
“This is really our first step in that direction here,” he said. “I’d like to see some more of that. But it’s not part of our culture yet. I want to be able to incentivize people to take on those kinds of leadership jobs.”
In Lockhart’s case, Avossa didn’t just sell Lockhart on the idea of taking on a failing school. He sweetened the deal with a $24,000 raise, hiking his salary from $90,000 to $114,000. Today Lockhart is one of the top-earning principals in the county.
The school’s achievements have not gone unrecognized. In October, Lockhart was recognized as the county’s principal of the year and honored with a presentation by the school board.
Accepting a large trophy after a standing ovation, he acknowledged the progress but said it was important to look forward, with so much work still unfinished. Most of Lake Shore Middle’s students still are not performing on grade level, after all. And each year, more students arrive.
“We can do so much more,” he said.