BARTOW –The board room was practically full at the Bartow City Commission meeting on Monday, April 1. Colleagues, family and friends were on hand to see the commission present Bartow Middle School Principal Chris Roberts with the Key to the City.
In early March, Roberts was named the Polk County Public School Principal of the Year. He is now a nominee for Florida’s Principal Achievement Award for Outstanding Leadership, as awarded by the Florida Department of Education.
“(The Key to the City) is not something we often present,” Bartow Mayor Leo Longworth said. “It's for when someone does something really special.”
Roberts has been the principal of Bartow Middle for three years and he is the fifth principal at the school in the past seven years. When he arrived, the school had earned three Ds and an F in consecutive years on statewide assessment.
It was one of eight Polk County schools the state put in a turnaround plan, meaning the school had a choice of three paths: close, be turned into a charter school or have an external operator guide the school to at least a C grade.
For the 2017-18 school, Roberts and his team at Bartow Middle had done just that, earning a C grade.
“I told them they were not going to stay here long,” Roberts said.
When he arrived at Bartow Middle, the school had 28 faculty openings. Now, he said, more teachers are wanting to stay than go and plenty more are applying to work there.
“That speaks volumes,” Roberts said.
An attendee of Bartow Middle School in the 1980s, and a 1989 graduate of Bartow High, Roberts said he wasn't really sure about taking the job at BMS when he was offered it. At the time, he was the principal at Highlands City Elementary and he'd heard about the problems Bartow Middle faced.
“Initially I had hesitation — I knew the history there and how tough things were,” Roberts explained. “Having so many principals in those years, I knew things were tough.”
Ultimately, he took the job and discovered the situation, in some regards, perhaps wasn't as bad as he anticipated. Discipline issues, though, were in line with the school’s reputation. The year before he got there, there were more than 3,000 discipline referrals.
“If that many kids are out of class and in the Discipline Office, they are not learning,” he said. “The first year with the eighth graders was kind of tough, but now in talking to some of (their) high school teachers, they are telling me the ninth grade group (this year) are some of the best kids they've gotten. That's what I want to see happen.”
Roberts said he was not a great student – he has said in the past he was probably the last student paddled at Bartow Middle – and that he knows from those who guided him that anyone and everyone can be helped.
“I see the potential in the kids,” Roberst said. “I believe every kid can make it.”
This was not the first time the performance by the Bartow Middle faculty has been noticed by commissioners. At a meeting in February during the commissioner comments, Commissioner Scott Sjoblom praised the efforts.
“Forty of (Roberts’) teachers enrolled and got a master's degree or higher,” Sjoblom said, referring to a grant program offered by the Florida Department of Education. “He has had a tremendous impact on teacher retention and raising teachers’ ability. It's really pretty cool.”
Roberts fought back tears a few times during the presentation, demonstrating what Longworth described as his “humble spirit.”
Roberts said that the honor meant a lot to him, but added that the secret to the success he has experienced are the people he works with each day at Bartow Middle.