Commentary: Tampa Bay Area business executives head back to school

As students head back to school, so are some of the Tampa Bay Area’s leading business executives. However, instead of hitting the books, these executives are partnering with school principals, through the Council for Educational Change, to help further enhance the leadership skills that principals need to drive student academic performance and foster a culture of excellence. As the President and Executive Director of the Council, I have witnessed the transformation at schools when business leaders engage with school leaders and students.
Raymond James, a Council statewide program supporter, is a great example of a business that is playing an active role in improving public education. Their partnership with Principal Robert Ovalle of Mount Vernon Elementary School in St. Petersburg, has positively impacted the lives of thousands of students. This year, the partners are launching “Men in the Making,” which will target 25 students who lack positive role models in their lives and hold meetings twice a month with guest speakers from the community. Speakers include St. Petersburg Police Chief Anthony Holloway, Chief of Pinellas County Schools Police Luke Williams, and the Mayor of St. Petersburg Rick Kriseman.
We must remember that school principals are tackling a number of issues at a time when resources keep shrinking and responsibilities keep growing. School principals can’t do it alone. We need the business community to get involved in our schools and work with school leadership to create programs that benefit students and their communities, ultimately benefiting our economy. Improving the academic performance of students nurtures our future workforce. It’s a win-win for everyone involved.
While our CEO/Principal partnerships have led to a number of success stories in schools across the Tampa Bay Area, such as Lanier Elementary and Mort Elementary, we are constantly looking to take partnerships to the next level. 
For example, last year we held three Career Awareness Leadership Forums in areas of technical healthcare, energy, and information technology. Throughout the Forums, we partnered with Erwin Technical College, Aparicio-Levy Technical College, Pinellas Technical College, Keiser University, Duke Energy, CitiGroup, and Sofwerx.  
The purpose of these forums is to help their students prepare for careers after high school – and to help schools incorporate the necessary workforce skills into their curriculum that help students succeed in the workplace. If teachers and school principals aren’t aware of the skills the business community is looking for, how can we adequately prepare our students?
We partnered with Duke Energy to create awareness of the jobs that are available in the energy industry. School leaders and career counselors found that many students didn't know that there are opportunities beyond working on powerlines. They also learned that many of the job opportunities do not require a college degree. A large part of the Forum included job shadowing, which allowed students to see the day-to-day life of a worker at Duke Energy and ask questions about the jobs and their career paths.
The Council also partnered with CitiGroup, Sofwerx, and the University of South Florida to deliver a Forum that focused on careers in Information Technology. Students, principals, and teachers from 15 schools in Hillsborough County participated to learn more about current and future job opportunities in the IT industry.
They were exposed to concepts of artificial intelligence, anti-money laundering, and cybersecurity. Funded by the Hillsborough Education Foundation and Hillsborough County Public Schools, the Forum created awareness about the IT industry and inspired high-schoolers to pursue careers in this field.
The Technical Healthcare Forum, a partnership with the Council for Educational Change and Hillsborough County Public Schools, was the recipient of the Florida Association for Career and Technical Education (FACTE) CAD Academy Award. The Florida Association for Technical and Industrial Educators is affiliated with FACTE and works toward the advancement and enhancement of career and technical education.
The Career Awareness Leadership Forum is just one example of how companies are getting involved with schools in order to secure a future workforce. This school year, we’re looking forward to more successful programs, including a Career Awareness Leadership Forum with the hospitality industry.
When the bell rings this year, students will head to class knowing that the business community in the Tampa Bay Area, along with the Council for Educational Change, is concerned about their future.
Dr. Elaine Liftin is the President and Executive Director of the Council for Educational Change, a statewide, nonprofit organization focused on improving student achievement and addressing critical education issues.