In 2004, Miami native Dr. Justin A. Koren was living in New York City, pursuing his post-secondary education, when he heard the news of the horrific tragedy at Southwood Middle School in Palmetto Bay, in which a 14-year-old student had murdered his best friend inside a school bathroom. The tragedy had such a profound and life-changing impact on Dr. Koren that he immediately left New York and returned home to Miami.
“My reaction to the news was visceral. I knew I needed to be back in Miami to play whatever role I could in the school community’s healing process,” he said.
Dr. Koren immediately wrote and produced an award-winning play, Defining Code Red, and landed a teaching position at Southwood Middle School, where he was named “Rookie Teacher of the Year.” Several schools and 15 years later, Dr. Koren currently os serving as assistant principal of Miami Killian Senior High School in Kendall. In November, he announced his candidacy for the District 9 seat of the Miami-Dade County School Board, which spans from Pinecrest to Florida City.
“I’m a candidate for the Miami-Dade County School Board because, as school board member, I will have an opportunity to continue making a positive impact on a much larger scale,” Dr. Koren said. “Many people I respect have asked me to run. Students need a champion, especially an advocate from the classroom who understands firsthand the challenges and opportunities facing our public schools today. I will be that person.”
On Aug. 18, voters will decide the next school board member for District 9. The district currently is represented by former educator Dr. Lawrence Feldman, who has held the seat since 2008 and is not running for re-election. Dr. Koren will continue his role as vice principal while concurrently campaigning for the seat.
“I’ve been a District 9 student, teacher or administrator nearly my entire life,” Dr. Koren said. “There’s a need for more school board members who have been working with students and teachers on a daily basis and have intimate knowledge of their needs,” he said.
Killian’s academies director, Barbara Hernandez Guerra, an avid supporter of Dr. Koren’s candidacy, agrees.
“Dr. Koren comes from the trenches. He’s an excellent problem solver and an active listener,” she said. “He knows the problems facing teachers and kids, like bullying and mental health, and has good ideas about how to solve them. Whenever a student has a serious problem, he’s able to talk them ‘off the ledge’ and get them the resources they need. I consider Dr. Koren perfect for the job.”
As the only candidate in this race who is both an educator and a public school administrator, Dr. Koren recognizes the enormous impact that school has on children and the ability teachers and staff have in guiding the path of students as they progress through school.
“The way we invest in our schools and the energy we collectively bring — whether it’s a teacher, a custodian or a cafeteria worker who might be providing the only hot meal that child receives that day — play a hugely important role in helping guide the trajectory of a child’s life,” Dr. Koren said.
A self-described “huge advocate of arts education,” Dr. Koren said he benefited tremendously from Miami-Dade County’s magnet theater programs while in middle and high school. Nevertheless, he appreciates that every child is different and that education isn’t a “one size fits all.”
“While Magnet Schools are critical, we also need to strengthen other educational options, including vocational programs and alternative pathways to helping students realize their full potential and nurture their dreams of success. We need new ideas to revitalize the way we think about education, and not to over-fixate on standardized test scores.”
Another of Dr. Koren’s priorities is the critical issue of school safety. At Killian, he oversees more than 30 emergency drills each year, ranging from bomb threats and fire drills to procedures for Code Red lockdowns and hostage situations. Colleagues describe him as “the calm in the storm.”
“Nothing is more important than the safety of the children in our care, and that of school staff, parents and visitors,” Dr. Koren said. “Miami-Dade County Schools is fortunate to have a top-notch Schools Police Department, about whose School Resource Officers I can’t give enough praise.
“The world has changed. Social media has allowed bullying to thrive in schools as never before. It’s not just pushing kids against lockers anymore. Now, they use apps, some of which allow hateful messages to appear and disappear in a matter of seconds. I have zero tolerance for bullying. We need to make sure students feel safe reporting incidents of bullying and also provide adequate training for all those who are in a position to respond.”
Senior Cayo Rodrigues, a member of the school’s Army Junior ROTC program, has known Dr. Koren for three years.
“First and foremost, Dr. Koren is a person all students know they can trust and count on to be there for us,” Rodrigues said. “In this day and age, it’s hard to find someone like him. He’s always available to help the student body and he makes us feel included and cared about.”
Mental health is another issue about which Dr. Koren is passionate. “We are continually advancing progress on the mental health front and the District has taken important steps to partner with agencies to support students and their families. We can do more, however, like increasing those resources and doing a better job of communicating their availability,” he said.
Anthony Taft, Killian security monitor who has known Dr. Koren for more than 10 years said, “Dr. Koren does whatever he can to make sure students feel comfortable in school and help them reach their fullest potential. It’s rare that you meet a person who is the total package, but he is that person.”
With a smile, Dr. Koren mentions that his day begins at 4:45 a.m. and often includes weekends. “When you do what you love, what you believe in, you have the energy to work 18-hour days. I want to bring that energy to the school board and make it contagious.”