Marco Island’s future high school may be a matter of getting the homework done.
Islanders yearning for the high school discussed what needed to be done to make their dream come true on Saturday at Mackle Park.
The citizens’ movement began with two people about two years ago and grew to about 200 people following the “Town Hall” meeting led by Marco resident and college professor Mario Sanchez.
Requests went from whispers to shouts after a joint meeting between the Collier County School Board and Marco Island City Council on Jan. 20.
The School District is proposing solar panels for a commercial endeavor on the School District’s undeveloped Island land known as Tract K.
Solar power could offset the School District’s electricity bills. Some say the business venture with an Island solar firm is a stretch from the intent of the developer, Deltona Corp., who deeded three parcels of Island land to the Collier School District in the 1960s.
The stand-alone solar panels proposed for Tract K by the Marco-based firm, United Energy Technology, could take four acres of Island land many agree was set aside for a school.
Collier schools Superintendent Dennis Thompson said earlier in January that the 11-acre site is too small for a school. Development is also not permitted due to the nesting American Bald Eagles on the site.
“Let’s talk about the high school first. Where to put it is secondary,” Sanchez said Saturday.
Thompson has said that the Island doesn’t have enough students to support a high school.
There are about 2,000 school-aged children on Marco Island and about 500 high school age students. Less than 200 Island students are currently enrolled at Lely High School.
The proposed high school would be either a public school or a charter school, which essentially works as a contractor for the school district.
“This would not just be for the gifted, genius, advanced placement or local” students, Sanchez said, noting it would be for anyone.
Several residents, including Jay Santiago, stood up offering an anecdote of how a small school of 500 students or fewer has yielded successful graduates.
Santiago and Sanchez pointed out another challenge — local politics.
“This Island is immensely politically charged and that’s an understatement by a person who came from a communist country (Cuba),” Sanchez said.
Santiago said City Council’s “friendships” with the firm proposing solar power on Tract K may pose the greatest challenge.
“We don’t need to wait for government approval of this idea in order to move forward,” Sanchez said.
Roger Hall, 67, said a Marco Island high school will attract younger families to the Island, adding to its diversity, a goal City Council has voiced in its visionary plans for the Island.
The School District may fear losing Islanders as “donors” to Lely High School, but a high-quality Island school will increase property values and tax income, said Hall, a former realtor.
The citizens’ movement began with informal gatherings in Fay Biles’ Island home.
Biles, a member of Florida Gulf Coast University’s foundation board, is working with FGCU to garner support and ideas for shared resources.
Lely High School is rated a D school based on students’ scores on the standardized exams, the FCATs.
Marco Island Charter Middle School is rated an A school.
Sanchez said he didn’t believe the FCATs were reliable standards and were not his basis for creating a new high school.
The round-trip commute to Lely costs Island students one to three hours per day depending on where they are on the bus route, he said.
“I wonder what you could do with three more hours a day in the classroom,” Sanchez said.
Peter Piro, a psychology teacher at Edison State College, said college students coming from foreign high schools are often better prepared than those coming from U.S. schools.
Marco Island’s high school should focus on the desired outcome of comparing students’ achievement to international leaders in education, Piro added.
“We can raise the bar. I can tell you it works. I’ve done it,” Sanchez said.
As a tenured professor at Miami-Dade College, he said he knows that students, including minorities and non-English speakers, have greater success as expectations rise.
While the community gathered at the park, petitions were circulating at other Island events, particularly youth athletic events. About 200 people signed the petition, including approximately 100 people present at the meeting.
Some Islanders and educators said they were concerned about a small high school’s athletic offerings.
While opposition to the high school exists, no one stood up against the movement Saturday.
“We overcame a lot of opposition to get Marco Island Charter Middle School ... We need to find an approach that works for everyone again,” said Islander Jane Watt, 39.