How to help kids learn? Community engagement brings success to local K-12 education

When Mount Vernon Elementary in Pinellas County and Raymond James Financial joined forces years ago, Mount Vernon progressed from a failing school to an "A/B'' rating. 

As Mort Elementary in Hillsborough County opens its doors in August, one of the Tampa Bay Area’s lowest performing elementary schools will provide students and their families access to services that provide food, housing, jobs, clothes and, eventually health care, dental care and mental-health resources as a result of partnerships with community organizations. 

Both anecdotes highlight the pivotal role that community engagement plays in bridging the student achievement gap in local schools. 

This type of collaboration is essential for transforming our failing schools into success stories.

In 2016, the Florida Department of Education issued failing grades to 44 schools; almost half of these schools are in the Tampa Bay Area. 

It is our collective responsibility to reverse this trend. 

We sometimes expect our school system to fix itself with tax dollars and elected officials. But school systems face severe limits in financial support and human capital. 

As a member of the Council for Educational Change, a nonprofit that partners business executives with school principals to help improve the quality of education in challenged public schools, I have witnessed the positive changes resulting from community engagement and public/private partnerships. 

Through the Council for Educational Change’s CEO/School Principal partnership model, business executives mentor school principals on strategic planning, problem solving, team building, innovative thinking and a myriad of corporate leadership skills focused on improving the overall quality of student education. 

The leadership of a school makes a big difference in student performance so supporting effective school leaders is key. Our executive mentoring programs -- which last from one year to three years -- are created in coordination with the school district and sanctioned by the Florida Department of Education.  

A shining example of this program is the successful partnership we created between Mount Vernon Elementary School Principal Peggy Pearson and Raymond James Financial, who provided more than 100 volunteer tutors each week to boost reading and math comprehension for at-risk students.

Parental involvement key

The volunteers also worked closely with Principal Pearson to promote parental involvement in their children’s academic career. Executives at Raymond James provided funds for programs focused on academic success, attendance, and teacher appreciation while offering managerial and strategic advice to the school leadership. 

In an effort to improve student performance at Mort Elementary, the Council for Educational Change partnered Principal Woodland Johnson with Vistra Communications CEO Brian A. Butler. 

Working under a mentorship framework, Johnson and Butler developed a strategic plan to tackle many of the issues that were blocking Mort’s success. 

To support their three-year plan, we engaged the Spurlino Foundation, which generously provided the partnership with a $100,000 grant. The Council for Educational Change matched the funding and provided a mentoring coach to enable both partners to achieve their goals. Among other accomplishments, the $200,000 is providing technology to classrooms for students and teachers trapped in the digital divide.

At a recent tour of Mort Elementary, Principal Johnson discussed his decision process and future plans for the Community School with members of the Council for Educational Change. 

The knowledge and inspiration gained from his partnership with CEO Brian Butler enabled him to choose the “community school model’’ as the best option for Mort, located in a neighborhood where 99 percent of the school population is eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.  

Principal Johnson is transforming the culture at Mort Elementary under the guidance of the Children's Home Society of Florida, the University Area Community Development Corporation, Tampa Family Health Centers, Tampa Innovation Alliance and the USF College of Education.

Path to brighter futures

The Council also witnessed its principal/CEO partnership model succeed at Franklin Boys Preparatory Academy in Hillsborough County. Engaging the Bay Area business community enabled Principal John Haley to turn a failing school -- scheduled to be closed -- into an institution that boasts one of the highest graduation rates in Florida. Franklin Prep has moved from plummeting student enrollment to requiring a waiting list for the current school year.  

Engaging the business community to improve student performance has strong support from Hillsborough and Pinellas schools superintendents. Case in point: Hillsborough Superintendent Jeff Eakins, in a letter to the Council for Educational Change, stated recently that schools touched by our partnerships have “changed [their] culture and experienced significant increases in student achievement.’’

Community involvement has much to offer schools across Florida and it is imperative that business executives become involved. Investing the time and effort to partner with principals strengthens our schools and communities while developing a skilled workforce for local businesses. More importantly, public/private partnerships contribute a proven-results framework for ending the cycle of poverty by opening access to well-paying jobs, strong neighborhoods, and brighter futures.

Gene Marshall is the immediate Past Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Council for Educational Change, an independent educational non-profit organization serving the state of Florida. He is a founding member of the board of Northstar Bank - a community bank organized in Florida and headquartered in Tampa. Gene is a retired Senior Vice President of JPMorgan Chase Bank. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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