Pensacola, Florida
Wednesday August 21st 2019

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Alachua County Bans Together for Education

By Duwayne Escobedo

When a normally “A” or “B” public school system receives a “C” two years in a row, what should business, education and government leaders do?

In Alachua County, community leaders didn’t mess around. They sounded the alarm.

Now, more than two dozen Alachua leaders have recently signed the Alachua County Education Compact to ensure every student has the opportunity to make something of themselves.

In education speak, the purpose is to mobilize the entire community around education and better prepare students for higher education and sustainable careers. The six outcomes they want include: improving school readiness rates, increasing high school graduation rates, creating an aligned productive workforce, implementing healthy lifestyle habits, introducing an appreciation for the arts and developing a sense of social responsibility.

Through a stewardship board, all of this will get underway no later than October and will be monitored over the next five years.

Ian Fletcher, Gainesville Chamber of Commerce Vice President of Workforce Development, got a head start on the education problem.

It’s a problem that allows one elite high school to continuously win national math competitions, while high-poverty areas in Gainesville cost $23,000 per student to educate. Normally the state allocates $7,000 per student, but those students don’t contend with domestic violence, free lunch and failure to attend school issues.

Alachua County has education assets—a preeminent state university, the most educated workforce in Florida, the nation’s No. 1 community college, a K-12 system on the cusp of transformational change and high schools that rank in the top two percent of high schools nationwide.

“There are pockets of success but not overall success,” Fletcher said. “We needed to change our focus to get overall success.”

Three years ago, Fletcher embarked on a mission to pull together the entire community and focus on education. The business community kept telling Fletcher, “Our students aren’t good enough.”

“What our businesses were telling us was we don’t have the skilled workforce we need for tomorrow,” Fletcher said.

So, he traveled across the country looking at national education models to copy thanks to the Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives. Cincinnati began the “Strive Partnership,” while Louisville aimed to have 55,000-degree holders by 2020.

Then, Fletcher came across the Los Angeles Compact put together by the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. It was a spin-off of the Boston Compact, which brought together public, private and Catholic schools to change the plight of Hispanic and African-American students, mostly males, by improving their rate of graduation.

“We looked at the LA Compact and I spent the week out in LA,” Fletcher said. “We decided that the LA Compact was the one we wanted to replicate. Our community last October had an education forum put on by Plum Creek here and we had people come out. We had speakers. We started to take a focus, and we came to realize education was such a far scope that we had to include everything.”

Meanwhile, two critical developments propelled the Alachua Compact forward. The chamber got the Alachua public school system and its new Superintendent Owen Roberts to sign on. Then the University of Florida and Santa Fe Community College—the No. 1 community college in the nation according to Aspen Institute—committed to the new compact.

“Once we got the three education institutions on board, that was the driving engine to get the businesses and philanthropy and our community government and parents and family behind this engine,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher said Alachua’s new superintendent was the key for galvanizing community support. Roberts said during the recent compact announcement, “A community cannot rise above the ability of its people.”

“The best thing that happened was the new superintendent,” Fletcher said. “One of the things our new superintendent, Dr. Owen Roberts, did was he came in and said, ‘I’m not going to come in and be critical of the school system. I’m going to wait 100 days and I’m going to pull the data and let the data tell the story.’ That’s how he was able to move his board in support of this, as well because he didn’t just come in and
gave an opinion. He actually had the data and he pulled the data and on his 100 day report, he kind of introduced this for the first time.”

Now the Alachua community is committed to work together to improve educational outcomes for every student in their public school system. Each will play a role in developing strategies that attain the desired outcomes.

This will ultimately benefit local businesses by creating a skilled workforce pipeline.

“Schools are the lifeblood in the community, and until all Alachua County students and school children have access to school readiness and career opportunities, we all have work to do,” said Florida President W. Kent Fuchs during the compact signing ceremony.

Alachua County has figured it out. Good public education is good business.

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Moving Alachua to Reach the Stars Plan
Alachua County business, education and government leaders are embarking on a five-year plan to improve public education. The move resulted from the typical A and B school system earning two C’s in a row. Here are some measures being taken to ensure a quality education for all students in the system:
Early Childhood Education Initiative: Aimed at children from birth to grade three, the initiative will focus on ensuring that children in Alachua County experience high-quality early childhood care and education. This will begin with the establishment of the Duval Early Learning Center in east Gainesville in the 2015-16 school year.
Language Development: A renewed district focus will include specialized training for teachers and principals on the neuroscience of language. It will expand opportunities for students to learn different languages and use them in both oral and written forms. The first step has already been taken with the implementation of the Fast ForWord program in 10 high-needs schools, which will be expanded in the future.
STEAM Initiative (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics): Beginning with the highest-needs schools and ultimately expanding to all schools, this initiative will focus on expanding students’ interest in both STEM and the arts. The initiative will begin with a robotics program. Math competition teams have been established in all elementary and middle schools to foster student interest. Arts education will also receive renewed emphasis in all schools. Choral groups will be established in all schools, and an enhanced fine arts magnet will be established at Rawlings Elementary School in the 2015-16 school year.
Parent Academy: A Parent Academy will be established to provide parents with teaching skills, with its hub at the Family Services Center in east Gainesville. This initiative will also include mobile units to deliver parent training and other services on-site within neighborhoods with a high percentage of struggling students. Community partners will be critical to the success of this academy.
Global Education Magnet: K-12 students will have the opportunity to learn three foreign languages, expand their knowledge of other cultures and develop a strong sense of social responsibility. Metcalfe Elementary School will be the site of the elementary Global Education Magnet, which is set to begin in the fall of 2016. The program will be expanded to a middle and high school.
Additional strategies:
•    Improved instructional quality in every classroom
•    More student mentoring programs
•    Incentives to encourage teachers to work with high-needs students
•    An initiative to ensure all families have access to computers/Internet
•    Improved facilities, particularly in high-needs schools