Students at South Miami Senior High place first in National Robotics Competition

South Miami Senior High School Robotics Club students (l to r) Ruben Labrada, Claudia Reyes, Gerardo Parra, Rafael Gutierrez, Yomar Toledo and teacher Rolando Pedraza-Cruz won first place in the ION Mini-Urban Challenge National Robotics Finals Competition in Washington DC sponsored by The Institute of Navigation and the United States Air Force Research Laboratory. Students are challenged to design and operate robotic cars. SMSHS also took home second place. Both teams won a combined $11,500 covering their one week DC travel expenses. Congratulations winners!

When South Miami Senior High School (SMSHS) Principal Gilberto Bonce graduated from Troy State University in Alabama with a physical science degree, he figured he would take a leisurely year off to perhaps prepare for vet school. But his dad had other ideas, prodding him to get started earning a living. And so began, quite serendipitously, a career in teaching.

Twenty four years later, Bonce is at the helm of a dynamic “quietly kept gem” at SMSHS. Going into his seventh year as principal, Bonce shared reflections, challenges, and achievements on the evolving educational scene — from the director’s chair.

“It was totally by accident that I began teaching,” said Bonce. “My dad basically told me there is no free ride for you here at home after I completed my undergraduate degree, so I started substitute science teaching at Carver Middle School.” He was only two weeks into this new assignment when Principal Samuel Gay called him into his office. Thinking as he walked down the hall to his office, “I should have stuck to the lesson plan,” Bonce was pleasantly surprised to be offered a job instead.

“Instead of having the students sit all in rows I moved all the seating so we had a big circle,” said Bonce. “I had sewed a bunch of tube socks together to explain the digestive system and we had a lively discussion going on. I guess the principal was impressed with my unconventional methods.”

That unconventional style and passion for seeing the rewards of effective teaching kept Bonce in the business. It has also brought SMSHS into the top four percent high school ranking nationwide during his tenure, according to U.S. News and World Report.

The record has not been achieved without overcoming obstacles. An FCAT “D” ranking several years ago (which should have been a “C” but got docked a letter grade by the state solely because the lower quartile students had not demonstrated sufficient improvement according to Bonce) turned out to be a cloud with a silver lining.

“We were able to make some effective personnel changes and we have maintained a “B” for the last two years although due to changes in the grading of schools we were a “C” this year,” said Bonce. “I feel the FCAT is a good test but the problem is the immense focus in how it is used whereby teachers are being forced to teach to the test and (consequently) it takes away their academic freedom to (uniquely) teach.”

The current student body total is 2150 which Bonce calls a manageable number. Over 70% of graduating students go on to college, a small percent join the military, and the rest begin careers post high school. Almost 30 percent are English as a Second Language or ESOL students, and approximately 400 kids live outside of the school boundary zone. The demographic make-up is 84 percent Hispanic, seven percent African American, and seven percent Anglo. Last year one student won the prestigious Gates Millenium Scholarship and Bonce has seen graduates go on to Harvard, the United States Naval Academy, and other Ivy League institutions. Implementing the Class Size Amendment that limits total students to 25 has not been easy, Bonce admits. Ultimately co-teaching sce- narios were implemented to fulfill the requirements while maintaining honors and arts programs as much as possible. The school is currently being retrofitted to accommodate personal technology devices as an academic tool (while blocking Facebook).

To combat cyber bullying which is slightly on the rise with approximately five to six cases per year, Bonce and his team remain vigilant with an open door policy at all times for students to talk out their problems before they get unmanageable. Bonce recently returned from a Broward conference on Common Core State Standards which he says is “coming down the pike soon.” They also anticipate implementing a similar pro- gram to Advanced Placement classes in the near future.

Although summer may seem like a break for the school staff, it is actually an intense time to get ready for fall. Bonce says teaching is so different now from when he was in school. As the paradigm shifts, his team is learning and evolving to improve the way students engage in thinking critically.

Bonce’s “hope and pride” in SMSHS — to quote the Alma Mater — is apparent when he talks about the student body. “They will open doors for you, say thank you. I thought we might have issues (considering the demographics) but we all get along nicely and it really is like a family atmosphere. I don’t live in the immediate area but my son goes to school here, and my younger boy will attend as well.”


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