Group meets with goal of improving education in Collier County

— What started as a neighborhood conversation is now going county-wide.

How can public education in Collier County be better?

That is what The Education Foundation of Collier County hopes to find out. The organization is in the second phase of a study about the community and how it can improve education.

The goal of Connect Now, which is what the project is called, is for residents to articulate what they want out of the community so they will be able to discern what they want from the community’s public education system.

Similar studies have been launched in Orlando’s Orange County and in Mobile, Ala. The purpose is to reconnect the community to the schools and to remind community members that everyone has a role in making the community and schools thrive.

“What we are giving them is a gift,” said Alan Horton, co-chair of Connect Now and a former Naples Daily News editor. “People have donated thousands of hours of their time toward this process and tons of effort. It is the gift of the people’s voice. And it truly is a gift.”

The process started last year when The Education Foundation began holding 54 community conversations. Held mostly in living rooms in areas across the state, the conversations brought 10 to 14 people together at a time to discuss the community and the educational system. The conversations were held in different areas across the county — including Immokalee, Everglades City and Marco Island, as well as pockets of Naples — to ensure that everyone in the community had a chance to participate in the discussion.

The people were members of the community without an affiliation to a school other than they might have children or grandchildren who attend public schools. Other conversations took place separately with teachers, principals and students.

The second phase of the project began Tuesday night with the “Countywide Congress.” The congress is made up of 40 people who attended the original conversations and 10 others who did not participate in the conversations the first time. The purpose of the congress is to take those individual neighborhood conversations and find similarities.

“We are going one more step with that conversation and talking across the county,” said David Moore, vice president of Collaborative Communications Group, contracted by the Education Foundation of Collier County to do the project.

The people who comprised the congress represented all walks of life — black, white, rich, poor, well-known and not so well-known. They included Golden Gate High School Principal Jose Hernandez, Collier County Education Association President Cal Boggess, involved community members, such as Immokalee’s Fred Thomas, and involved parents, such as Becky Newell, who headed up the committee to get the district’s referendum passed this fall.

Hernandez said he was excited to be part of the process.

“I think some of the voices we have not heard will finally be heard,” he said. “I think, so often they have ideas and opinions, but have not had a way of expressing them.”

The group started out as a whole, discussing what it wanted for its community and for its school. Some of the things community members wanted included a community that is friendly, safe, well-educated, integrated and environmentally friendly. A government that puts children and the elderly first and is patriotic and proud and an economy that is thriving were also important to participants.

Joe Paterno, executive director of the South Florida Workforce Development Board, said he would like to see a 100 percent graduation rate.

Palmetto Ridge High School teacher Dayana Octavien said she would like to be able to look at the ethnic composition of a school and not be able to tell the ranking of a school.

“I think there is a stigma there for the child, for the parents,” she said. “I would like to see quality teachers who want to work at those schools without an incentive program.”

Community member Jerry Rutherford said he thought the schools should focus on teaching children “how to think, not what to think.”

Following the large session, the group broke up into four smaller groups to discuss in detail what is going well, what the challenges are and what conditions are keeping the community from overcoming the challenges.

Naples High School Principal Nancy Graham said one of the challenges she sees is that people are uninformed about what education is today.

“They want schools to be like they were when they went to school,” she said. “It is difficult for schools to focus. We need to teach students how to think and students need to learn, but we have a hard time focusing on that because of all of the other things we have to take care of.”

Octavien said she would like to see teachers paid more.

“I have never met so many teachers who work two jobs,” she said. “I know some teachers who have left teaching to become bartenders because it is better money.”

School Board Chairwoman Pat Carroll, who also serves as a member of the Connect Now Steering Committee and observed Tuesday’s session, said she was pleased with the work that has been done.

“The fact that we had almost 50 people that represented the demographics of Collier County talking about what they wanted and what their vision for education is was marvelous,” she said.

Carroll said the two issues the community wanted that stood out to her is how the district can improve communication and how the schools will prepare students for the workforce.

The Education Foundation of Collier County will host two more congress session — Saturday, March 14 and Saturday, March 21 — to finalize the document. The report will include what the community wants for its public schools, why the district faces the issues it does, and how the community plans to address its aspirations. It will then present the document to the community. What the community decides to do with it, organizers said, is up to them.

Carroll said the community has her personal commitment to implement the suggestions.

“I believe that the vision statement is going to have real value,” she said. “We take this very seriously. ... There is going to be a lot of discussion going on about how we implement this vision. We have never done this before. It will take discussion and leadership.”

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