DeLand principal excels at turning around school
BY ANDREAS BUTLER
In four years, Principal Dwayne Copeland turned Edith I. Starke Elementary School in DeLand from an “F” to a “C” school.
The school has a majority Black population and is located in the historic African-American Spring Hill community.
Copeland is heading into his fifth year at Starke. He has been with the school district for 22 years, including six as a teacher and 16 as an administrator.
The feat was achieved by focusing on academics, culture change and boosting morale of students and teachers, he noted.
For his accomplishment, Copeland was named the the 2018 Elementary School Principal of the Year by the Volusia County School District and the FUTURES Foundation.
The turnaround was no easy task.
“When I first got here, I noticed some things. This was a school that I wouldn’t want my kids to go to at the time. There were no field trips and no PTA,” he told the Daytona Times.
“We emphasized academics and built the morale. I even hired a lot of teachers that I felt wanted to be here and make academic success priority. I hired about half our current staff that first year.”
Copeland admitted, “When I got here it was my first time as a principal. The biggest challenge is getting parent involvement. That’s where I have the least influence,” he explained.
“I can make sure my teachers are well-trained and knowledgeable of instructional practices. I can make sure students have academic support. Unfortunately, a lot of times when kids leave school they aren’t opening a book or doing anything educational.”
Starke has received a “C” grade for the past three years. Most recently, the school was four points shy of a “B.’’
“The plan is to get that ‘B’ this year. As a matter of fact, we look forward to becoming an ‘A’ school,’’ he remarked.
Parental involvement is a key to improving underperforming schools and sustaining successful ones.
Copeland explained, “As a parent and educator, I know that students need to know that they have a parent that will advocate for them. Sometimes it’s something that isn’t right at school.
“Unfortunately, a lot of times there is a kid that just don’t have that advocate at home. I make sure that we have people on campus that will step up, almost in a parent role and advocate for a kid. They often buy clothes, supplies, etc.”
Starke Elementary is working on solutions.
“We make sure that parents know that they are welcome on campus and can be a part of their child’s educational process. I imagine all schools with high minority populations have the same struggle of parent involvement,” said Copeland.
Starke has 450 students. It’s mostly African-American but has a high number of Hispanic kids as well. Only about 10 percent of the students are White.
Ninety-nine percent of the students are on free or reduced lunch.
Copeland also noted that most of the students at Starke live nearby and walk to school.
“The one thing that I always advocate for when it comes to inner-city school like Starke, Turie T, Palm Terrace (elementary schools), which is where I began my career teaching, Westside, where I was an administrator and others is that community support is key,” Copeland continued.
“We can’t do much without it. Local churches, organizations and groups that step in and work with us is powerful even in the absence of parent support. It helps us to be able to do the work that we do.”
Volusia County is one of the lowest-paying school districts in Florida but educators face challenges with test scores, funding, school safety and more.
“We put in a lot of hours. Long after school hours. You can come to campus and see teachers working off the clock daily. Teachers and administrators often work on weekends. They must be recognized and appreciated,” Copeland noted.
Grateful for honor
Copeland was honored to receive the Principal of the Year award, which is co-sponsored by Volusia County Schools and FUTURES Foundation.
The award honors outstanding leadership and service by school-level administrators.
Stacy Gotlib, principal at River Springs Middle School in Orange City, was named the 2018 Secondary Principal of the Year.
“It’s an honor and privilege just to be recognized with this award. I’m very appreciative. It’s my fellow principals who voted for me and selected me for the award. I’m appreciative that they consider the work that I am doing here is valuable,” Copeland related.
Copeland has been an assistant principal and principal intern at Spruce Creek High; assistant principal at Silver Sands Middle, Hurst Elementary and Westside Elementary in addition to being a teacher and behavioral specialist at Palm Terrace Elementary.
He hails from Mt. Dora and graduated from Mt. Dora High School.
Copeland earned his bachelor’s in elementary education from then-Bethune-Cookman College in 1997 and a master’s in educational leadership from Nova Southeastern in 20012.
He is the father of three children, Kimberlee (24), Dwayne, Jr. (22) and Isaiah (14), and is engaged to Jacquese Slocum, principal of Southwestern Middle School in DeLand.