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Into The Future: Public Education in Alachua County

Into The Future: Public Education in Alachua County

Through the new Alachua County Education Compact, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Owen Roberts is working with a broad base of community leaders and organizations to ensure that all Alachua County Public School students:

  • Graduate from high school
  • Have access to and are prepared for college and/or career success
  • Have access to pathways to sustainable jobs and careers
  • Develop healthy lifestyle habits
  • Develop an appreciation for the arts
  • Develop a sense of social responsibility

Home Magazine Senior Writer Chris Eversole asked Dr. Roberts how public schools will achieve the goals of the compact.

You have talked about the importance of closing the gap between high-performing students and low-performing students. What specific work are you spearheading in cooperation with the compact?

Let me start by saying that I believe the goals of the compact can be achieved.

Some people see the goal of a 100 percent graduation rate as unachievable. If we’re not going to strive for 100 percent, I don’t know what we should strive for!

Our biggest educational challenge as a community is ensuring children are ready for success, beginning at and even before birth.

The school district can’t do this alone. The support of community partners is essential, especially for reaching children before they enter school. That’s why collaboration through the compact will be so important.

The district is improving early-childhood services to East Gainesville and the rest of the community through the newly created Duval Early Learning Academy and through the implementation of a research-based curriculum in other Head Start/VPK sites.

We’re also working to support struggling families so that we can break the cycle of poverty and school failure that has such a negative impact on the entire community. For example, the new Parent Academy will provide families the skills they need to help their children develop cognitively and emotionally. In addition to the enhanced services that will be provided at the Fearnside Family Services Center, we’ll use two mobile classrooms to reach parents where they live with GED classes, job- and life-skills training, parenting workshops and other programs.

These are the kinds of transformative initiatives the compact will support.

How has the community responded to your call for volunteers to help the schools?

The response has been very gratifying! I’ve heard from many individuals and groups that want to help.

Local churches have offered their support. Businesses, Santa Fe College, the University of Florida and many other organizations like the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce are contributing resources and talent.

It’s also important to get families involved. We have to reach out to parents, many of whom feel hopeless. We must give them something to believe in and provide incentives to participate.

As I’ve walked through low-income apartment complexes and neighborhoods, knocking on doors, people have been surprised.

“What are you running for?” they’ve asked. I’ve said, “I’m not running for office; I’m running for kids.”

Can you discuss your efforts to improve underperforming elementary schools?

We have taken many steps to boost the performance of students at all schools, although certainly a major focus has been on struggling schools. We must set high expectations for school administrators, teachers, students and parents. We must provide educators with the training, resources and time to meet the differing needs of all students. And of course, we must engage and empower families.

I’ve already mentioned some of our initiatives, such as the Parent Academy, language development programs and enhanced early childhood education. We’re expanding and enhancing our STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) offerings, beginning with a robotics program for elementary, middle- and high-school students throughout the district. We’re boosting our arts programs. We’re establishing a Global Education magnet program. And of course, we’re providing teachers and administrators with ongoing professional development so they can help students reach their full potential. These are just a few of the transformative steps we are taking over the next five years.

By increasing the performance of all students, including those who are currently struggling, we will ultimately give families and the entire community confidence in the value of public education. I firmly believe that strong schools are essential to community development.

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What are you doing to provide technical and vocational programs that provide an alternative to college?

Our students have access to many successful career and technical education (CTE) programs. About 1,000 of our students will have earned some type of industry certification this year, a dramatic increase in just three years. Many CTE students go on to some form of higher education, often with college credits under their belts. Many also graduate high school with practical work experiences that make them even more marketable.

Our challenge is to encourage more students to take advantage of these programs and to ensure that our offerings keep pace with ever-changing workplaces. We can’t just train students for today’s jobs. We have to create “agile learners” who will have the ability to learn even after they leave school. That means preparing students from a very, very young age for success in school, the workplace and in life.

How can you work more closely with UF and Santa Fe College? 

That’s happening in many ways. For example, we’re partnering with UF’s College of Engineering to engage their students as mentors in our robotics program. We’re also working with the College of Fine Arts to enhance our arts programs.

Santa Fe College continues to be a strong partner in career and technical education. Many of the graduates of our CTE programs move directly into related programs at Santa Fe.

In addition, Santa Fe will take the lead in the data analysis for the compact.

How do you balance setting high expectations with the reality that change takes time?

The two issues are not diametrically opposed. High expectations drive sustainable change. You must change the mindset that what currently exists is “good enough.” You need a plan with definable and measurable steps, and you need to establish optimum conditions for those actually doing the work.

All of this requires skill, resources, patience and time. But, the future of our children, our community and our society are worth the investment.

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