Teach for America
In 2001, Poekert moved to New York City to join Teach for America, a nonprofit that places new teachers in struggling schools. He was assigned to the city’s lowest-performing middle school, in the Bronx, to lead a class of students unable to pass the eighth grade. He employed alternative lessons to capture students’ interest. They analyzed lyrics to hip-hop songs, wrote slam poems and dreamed up comic book super heroes. They read poetry of Langston Hughes. They took a field trip to the headquarters of DC Comics, where they spent a day with editors and artists and walked away loaded with bags of comic books and other reading material.
Student absences dropped as kids became engaged and their reading skills improved. “That’s part of the battle,” Poekert says, “to get them to want to come to class.” At the end of the year, 25 of his 26 students passed the state’s standardized language arts test required to move on to high school, the highest success rate in the New York City Department of Education.
In 2005, Poekert came to Gainesville, where he quickly became connected with the Lastinger Center while pursuing a PhD at the College of Education. His dissertation was an examination of Ready Schools Miami, a professional development program developed by the Lastinger Center to improve teaching and learning in kindergarten to second grade in Miami-Dade County classrooms.
Lastinger Center’s mission: education improvement
The Lastinger Center is the brainchild of UF alumni Allen and Delores Lastinger, who founded the education incubator in 2002. Its mission: transfer cutting-edge academic research and effective teaching methods developed by scholars across the college into real-world improvements in teaching and learning in school classrooms across Florida and beyond.
The center has had just one director, Pemberton, who has steered its growth to become a national leader in developing effective education initiatives. Among the highlights: developing Algebra Nation and Math Nation, online mathematics tutoring resources that have helped improve the learning of some 1 million students statewide.
As assistant director, Poekert serves as Pemberton’s right hand and manages a growing portfolio of projects. In 2007, as he was working on his dissertation, Poekert relocated to Miami to help run a new Lastinger Center office. His first grant application resulted in a five-year, $6 million project with Miami schools funded by the U.S. Department of Education and the Kellogg Foundation. The college used the funding to launch an early childhood-focused version of the Teacher Leadership for School Improvement degree, an award-winning program to help the some of the state’s neediest schools attract and retain outstanding K-12 educators.
All told, Poekert currently serves as principal investigator or co-PI on projects totaling of $7.7 million, including a $3.7 million grant from the state of Florida to create Early Learning Florida, a professional learning system for Florida’s 55,000 early learning educators; and $827,278 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to create the Florida Teacher Leader Fellowship, a program to cultivate Florida teachers to create richer and more meaningful learning experiences for students.
This school year, Poekert moved back to Gainesville to work closer with Pemberton, who plans to retire next year.
“We have long hoped Phil could move up to Gainesville to assume more responsibility over the day-to-day operations of the Lastinger Center,” Pemberton says. “And particularly so we have strong and stable leadership as I look toward to my retirement next year.”
Poekert says after he was told he topped the ranking among the university faculty in submitted grant proposals, he gathered many of the Lastinger Center’s roughly 40 scholars. He saluted them for what he says was a team effort.
“We have a really awesome team here,” Poekert says. “And if there’s anything I’m really excited about, it is being a little closer to everybody and working with others across the college and the university to continue building mutually beneficial relationships.”