MARCO ISLAND — Come Monday morning, the children of Marco Island are once again students. Whether they walk, bike, catch a ride from mom, or wait for the bus, the formal learning process is set to kick back in.
With the new school year just around the corner, the Marco Eagle thought it would be interesting to put the heads of the Island’s flagship public schools together in one room, and hear what they see as important for education on Marco Island in the coming year. Tommie Barfield Elementary Principal Dr. Jory Westberry, Marco Island Charter Middle School Principal George Abounader, and Marco Island Academy Chairperson Jane Watt took a few moments from their busy Tuesday, preparing for the in-rushing wave of students, to share their perspectives.
The three sat down at a small, literally round table, in Westberry’s office at TBE. Emblematic of just how busy educators are in the days leading up to the first day of school, Watt brought her daughter, Olivia, on the way from a dance lesson.
Olivia Watt, an eighth-grader, in her own way, encapsulates schooling on Marco Island. She attended TBE, currently goes to MICMS, and is one year away from MIA.
Perhaps the greatest difference in schools on Marco Island, said Westberry, is the nature of the Island community itself.
“There are 50 schools in Collier County, and when you’re in a smaller location like this, you have a tendency to know a lot of the people.” Unlike schools in spread-out areas, many students and their families already know each other, and often continue together for a dozen years or more.
“We actually moved here because of this school,” Watt said of TBE. “I had heard so many good things about it. We came and visited, and I was so impressed with the people I met.”
While his school is also strongly identified with Marco Island, Abounader pointed out that, as a charter school, MICMS serves a diverse population.
“Last year, 40 percent of our student population (was) from off the Island. Charter school law allows people from all over to come here. The community here supports our school tremendously. Islanders should be proud that they’re supporting kids from Lely Elementary and Manatee Elementary, too. Diversity makes us a stronger and stronger school.”
Educators tend to identify strongly with their students. Each leader said they speak of “my kids” referring to their students, sometimes confusing their own families.
“Somebody asked me, ‘how many kids do you have in high school?’ and I said, ‘I think it’s 170.’ My oldest daughter’s in eighth grade, but I have 170 kids in high school,” said Watt. “You take ownership. You want them to have the best of everything.”
The three discussed school grades, those assigned each school by the state of Florida. TBE and MICMS repeated as A schools, while MIA was assigned a D. Each of the administrators expressed some frustration with the constant testing, and the constantly evolving grading system. Watt said her school falls into a grading anomaly, because of being too new to have graduated its first class of seniors.
“We outperformed the district on everything except algebra, but until we have a graduating class that’s how we’re graded. We’re rated on an elementary scale.”
Next year, she expects to see a different story. “We’ve revamped the whole algebra department,” she said.
Westberry and Abounader praised their staffs for working to maintain their A ratings.
“Teachers are the secret,” said Abounader. “I told our teachers we hit it out of the park this year. Out of 579 middle schools, only 19 scored higher. You would have to travel 100 miles to find a higher rated school.”
“That’s why selecting teachers is so critical,” agreed Westberry. The best ones, she said, embrace each child, and leave a little piece of their heart with each one. “I’m very proud of our staff. Some have been here 20, 25, or 30 years, and they’re still engaged, still pursuing their own learning.”
Olivia Watt was drawn into the discussion on the question of the “handoff” of students from one school to the next. It could be hard, she said, going from being the big kid one year to a lowest grade-level student the next. The transition can be hard for the adults, too.
“When the fifth graders leave, there are torrents of tears,” said Westberry.
It all comes back to the students, even on testing, said Abounader. “The kids are the ones who take the test. You gotta give them credit.”
What can parents do to best improve their children’s education? In a word, said Watt, “participate.”
“Read with your kids. Start when they’re in utero,” said Westberry. “Show appreciation for knowledge.”
Volunteer with the schools and take a direct part abound, said Abounader.
All the educators said they are excited about the coming school year, and happy to have their school’s halls once more filled with children and noise, which is, after all, their reason for existing.