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How A Miami Middle School Added Speech And Debate Classes On A Budget

John O'Connor
StateImpact Florida

Last week StateImpact Florida told you how a middle school in Miami has added speech and debate courses this year to improve reading, writing and speaking.

The school’s principal, Bridget McKinney majored in debate and thought the requirements for Florida’s new Common Core-based standards sounded a lot like her college classes. She needed a writing teacher for new speech and debate courses she wanted to create.

But like many Florida schools, Allapattah Middle has plenty of expectations but a limited budget.

She couldn’t hire a new teacher. It wasn’t in the budget. So she turned to what seems like an unusual place -- physical education teacher Veldreana Oliver, who has been with the school for 28 years.

“Let’s go! Dale!" Oliver hollers at students looping around Allapattah's campus. "Dale! Dale! Dale!"

She's getting her students ready for a timed one-mile run.

But now she’s also getting them ready for the state’s new, annual exam.

When Principal McKinney proposed the idea this summer, Oliver says she wasn’t sure she was the right fit.

“I love sports. I like to be outside. I’m a PE person," Oliver says. "However, she had confidence in me that I could do it.”

The next day, Oliver showed up at school with reams of research and lessons about teaching reading and writing. McKinney says that’s why she picked Oliver.

“It comes with passion," McKinney says, "and she has this conviction in her voice and she demands from her students that they all are expected to write to the highest expectations. I just like the energy she brought to it.”

Another reason? Results.

Last year Miami-Dade school leaders asked McKinney to add a creative writing course. There was no money to hire someone new. So McKinney asked Oliver to teach the class.

Credit John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida
StateImpact Florida
Stacks of books in Veldreana Oliver's classroom.

Oliver’s students earned some of the best FCAT scores in the school – particularly her students who were learning English.

“My scores were extremely high last year in writing," Oliver says, still with a touch of surprise, "they were real good. And my ESOL kids did really well. And now I’m not afraid to do writing anymore.”

Coaching up the gym teacher isn’t the only way Principal McKinney has gotten creative.

She lured LaDemia Albury away from a top-rated school to teach speech and debate at Allapattah.

“Actually from an A school that was much easier to teach at than over here," Albury says, "but it’s been a joy for me…it’s been a big transition.”

That transition includes some compromise to make the debate classes fit.
Allapattah has a growing Hispanic population, particularly new immigrants from Honduras. The school can’t hire enough translators, so Oliver and other teachers ask bilingual students to translate for students who don’t speak much English.

And the school had to make one big sacrifice to add the speech and debate courses – Allapattah no longer has a band class.

There are still more than 140 kids in the band, but now, they meet and practice after classes.

“I kinda compromised in a sense," she says. "But I augmented it after school because I didn’t want to lose that connection. But, yeah, I had to delete something in order to add this.”

Oliver says she doesn’t feel like she’s had to give anything up. After 28 years at Allapattah, she loves the freedom to design the creative lessons her new role requires.

But she still considers herself a PE teacher.

“I am, but I’m an educator first.”

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