“When I tell you I love what I do, I really do mean it.” David Alfonso, principal at Palm Beach Lakes High School, immediately draws you in with his genuine enthusiasm for his teachers, his students, and the art of teaching. This doesn’t go unnoticed and it’s quite infectious. In fact, he was just recognized by the School District of Palm Beach County, Florida as principal of the year and is a finalist for the state’s principal of the year.
Palm Beach Lakes High School has about 2,200 students, and is situated just one hour north of the sunny Florida urban havens of Miami and Fort Lauderdale. The school is part of the School District of Palm Beach County – what Alfonso deems “the best district in the entire state of Florida with its cutting-edge approaches and all types of support.”
Alfonso spent years moving through the ranks, beginning his career as a teacher, then moving on to assistant principal, principal for both an elementary school and a middle school, district area lead, and now principal of a high school. Each position came with its own challenges and often a requirement to be flexible and try new initiatives. When he moved into the principalship at Osceola Creek Middle School, it was there that he learned a lot about how to build a trusted community. “We all learned how to talk about diversity,” Alfonso remarked. “We had some courageous conversations about race.”
From school transformations to communities grappling with generational poverty, Alfonso is not one to shy away from a chance to make a big difference. When he began at Palm Beach Lakes three years ago, it was struggling to build the best academic and social environment for its students. The school had a reputation that Alfonso says was just simply “all wrong,” and they needed a champion. It’s a highly bilingual population and 93 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. “The kids and this community drive my work. I want to do right by these students. I want them to know they have someone in their court – whom they know and who believes that they can be successful.”
Alfonso, along with his dedicated staff, worked hard to change the culture at Palm Beach Lakes. Transforming a school is tough work, and Alfonso created a clear plan that he continues to implement and refine today. “We brought in structure and changed the discipline. We now have positive behavior supports and focus a lot on the social-emotional health of our students,” noted Alfonso. “And we do all of this as a team. It has resulted in increased morale and positive changes in student capabilities.”
“Every day, I go over my four basic rules: treat adults with respect, no fighting, no bullying, and protect our house.” Alfonso lists these with pride, admiring that students take the rules quite seriously. Though, Alfonso’s biggest win may just be the hearts and minds of his students. “I’m very visible,” he explains. “This matters when you want to build student rapport.”
This show of care and investment extends to his teachers as well. “We stick to a plan and follow through – teachers appreciate this.” Alfonso is deeply committed to supporting all teachers with professional learning communities (PLCs) where they can share and grow. “You do not go it alone. Our PLCs have made a huge difference. We meet once a week and, on occasion, we’ll even spend the whole day in our PLCs to work together, digest data, and create focused plans for giving students the best instruction possible.”
New teachers get additional supports from learning how to manage classrooms and practice restorative justice, to how to think outside the box and provide students with what they need most. “There’s no idea we won’t look into. Your voice, even when you’re new to the system, is valued,” explains Alfonso. New teachers are also paired with a more experienced teacher who will “basically become your best friend.”
When asked what Alfonso looks for in a teacher, he is quick to reply: “What I want is heart. I want somebody who is here because it’s their mission, not because it’s their job.”
Learn more about the NYU Steinhardt Teacher Residency partnership with the School District of Palm Beach County.