Leslie Brown is Chief Portfolio Services Officer for Broward County Public Schools in Florida. She is also part of the
Future Chiefs program with Chiefs for Change. With 30 years of service in Broward schools, Brown now leads the district’s work on school choice, innovative programs, athletics, class-size reduction, school boundaries and facilities management. She describes the reward and the mission in her work as, “The world comes to my door every day, and I…try to give them back the world.”
With the leadership responsibilities you have in the nation’s sixth-largest school district—more than 270,000 students and now serving thousands of refugee students from hurricane-devastated areas—you must be up very early. Does that mean lots of coffee? Or what gets you going? Our district is the lifeline for many of these families as they transition out of tragedy into a new opportunity for growth and a wonderful sense of community within their new school. And yes, it does require a little more coffee, more to wake me up in the morning after a night or two of redesigning systems of support when I cannot sleep. Time well spent, I say!
Talk about your own background and education and how that shaped your career path. My childhood included many transitions into new schools and communities as our family moved to new countries with my father’s work. I was that new child to the country and community. I truly cannot imagine what it was like for my mother to leave her four daughters in the hands of strangers in a strange land or new school community so many times. The welcoming feeling that my mother and all of us girls felt each time we entered a new school was something that I will never forget. We were out of place, we looked different from every other child at the school and we were still welcomed. That’s what I remember. I did not know it then, but I feel it now as each mother and father drops off their children at a school door—they entrust us with their most prized possession, sometimes even all they have in the world. As a former teacher, school principal and now as a district leader, I truly understand that parents entrust us with the very thing they love most, their child. Every process, school-based or district-based, keeps the child front and center for me and the direct supervisors who work with me.
Educators have so many competing priorities—academics, social-emotional supports, operations, extra-curricular. Talk about how you prioritize and manage your time and how you support other educators in those areas. While working in a large urban school district has its challenges with scope and size, we also have the luxury of having a very wide range of superb expertise. Time is a luxury that we do not have much of. In order to make the most of the available time, it is essential that from the highest level of the organization, we work collaboratively to leverage strengths from within each other’s divisions to understand, explore, ideate, test and implement the best solutions with all ideas on the table. In Broward, through the leadership of Superintendent Robert W. Runcie and his cabinet, we truly work together to leverage each other’s strengths in coming up with agreed-upon solutions to the most important aspect of the organization—student achievement. Alone, we would replicate, waste time, compete and perhaps even thwart the best efforts of the lone actor. Together, through expertise, alignment and collaboration, much more is accomplished, and agreed-upon goals are met and celebrated collectively. This is not common, and it is certainly not easy, but it is worth the difficult and challenging conversations at the highest levels so that those decisions and goals can be effectively cascaded down through the organization with fewer barriers, committed alliances and a heck of a lot less wasted time.
What are some of the extra supports you’ve put in place to serve the new refugee students who have come to Broward as a result of hurricane devastation in their homelands? In addition to the support that each school provides upon arrival of a parent from a hurricane-devastated community, my office in collaboration with other departments established a welcome center to provide a centralized support location for parents, guardians and others in the community who have questions about enrolling a student who has been impacted by the hurricanes. We explicitly communicated through all media and communication venues that we want parents and loved ones’ students who were displaced by the hurricanes to know that they are welcome in our schools and that we are here to support them in every way we can. We set up systems to support student registration, immunizations and physicals, access to clothing banks and food pantries as well as referrals and references to other family support services.
After moving a lot when you were growing up, you now have 30 years of service in Broward schools. What’s kept you there and what is your favorite day or moment from your time there? I never thought of my time in Broward County as “a long time in one place,” but now that you mention the 30 years! Compared to my moves and educational changes growing up, this is a rather stable setting for me. While I grew up being exposed to many cultures and communities, the luxury of Broward is that the world comes to us. The diversity is an asset that teaches all of us new ways of reaching, teaching and serving a representation of the entire world right here in our own community. My favorite moments are the same things that have kept me here: The high school student that sees me at a student theater production on bullying and runs up to remind me that I was her principal and I was the one who made her feel safe and loved. The young marine who stopped me at the bank counter to remind me that I was the only teacher who recognized that he needed help and provided it. The mother who shared with me that her daughter was studying genetics at the University of Florida—the same mother who begged me to take her daughter out of algebra, which of course I did not. Her daughter was too smart to not be pushed. These moments make up years of special days that remind me our parents give us their gift, their child, every day. The world comes to my door every day, and I, with my humblest actions, try to give them back the world so that they may explore with knowledge, understanding and empathy all that is waiting for them.
Michael Vaughn was the founding Communications Director of Education Post. Prior to that, Mike worked for 18 years in the communications offices of two urban school districts. He served in a variety of communications roles for the Chicago Public Schools starting in 1996, shortly after Mayor Richard M. Daley took control of CPS, and eventually served as the district's Communications Director until ...