I was invited by the JWB Children’s Services Council of Pinellas County and the Health and Human Services Coordinating Council for Pinellas to conduct a one-on-one interview with David Lawrence. Who is David Lawrence? He is the former publisher of the Miami Herald and head of The Children’s Movement of Florida. When I sat down with Lawrence, he began to interview me at once. He wasn’t subtle about it, and I didn’t resist. I was intregued–having been with myself my whole life, I’ve never found myself to be very interesting. I’m curious when others do.
Anyway, the few questions I did present to Lawrence ended with me being extended an invitation to attend a small, invitation only meeting–a gathering of some very influential leaders in Pinellas County spanning nonprofit, government and business sectors. It was here that I learned a little about the formation of the Health and Human Services Coordination Council’s establishment of Learn and Succeed Network, but more why the formation of this Network is of critical importance to our community.
From the article:
Lawrence has researched and stays up-to-date on many compelling facts to make his case for children in Florida. He reported alarming facts about the state of education right now. These facts illustrated enormous need in that 28 percent of third graders cannot read proficiently, and 3/5 of eighth graders are not reading at grade level. About 80 percent of childcare is nothing more than storage and warehousing with little to no education and learning taking place. When 90 percent of a child’s brain growth ends at the age of five, it is clear that early learning is critical to the future success of our county and its children.
Lawrence also is a man of intriguing etiquette, fully knowledgeable on Pinellas County statistics as well. He knew his audience. He went on to discuss some of the strengths that Pinellas County has, which can be leveraged to make an impactful change for this initiative, including diminishing unemployment, a manageable population growth rate, higher than most Florida counties’ per capita income, strong foundation and infrastructure.
Lawrence also mentioned that Pinellas County has in its midst a pioneer for children’s services—the JWB Children’s Services Council of Pinellas—which was the first children’s services council in Florida. JWB has served as a model for the other 10 children’s services councils in the State.
Yet, while Pinellas County has many strengths, one overarching concern that commonly plagues discussions about education is finances. The cost of reform and new initiatives is a marked concern across the nation, state and even locally.
Recently, Governor Rick Scott allocated an additional $1 billion to education for the State. At first glance, that may seem like a helpful move, but it isn’t. In February of last year, Governor Scott cut Florida’s education budget by $1.3 billion. Now that $1 billion has been added back, the State is still $300 million behind while the State has approximately 30,000 additional students to serve. Additionally, as property taxes support schools, and as property is valued far less than it was two years ago, this is even more revenue subtracted from education.
While this does sound dismal, hope rests in the fact that Pinellas County considers education and children a priority. Lawrence said, “It is not that [we] lack resources. The resources need to be reallocated to reflect the priorities of the people.” Lawrence stresses that for education reform to really be effective there cannot be a focus on “those kids—the disadvantaged ones, the minorities, the ones living in poverty. The focus must be on equality—equal access to high quality education, resources and opportunities of all children.”
One sixth of our schoolchildren are living in poverty and about 50 percent qualify for free or reduced lunches. Many of these same children come to school with more base problems that trump the need for reading, writing and math today such as food insecurity, homelessness, neglect, etc. Schools must then divert its role away from education to managing social problems and triaging issues.
In the end, all of this knowledge needs to translate to change. And this is what the Learn and Succeed Network is hoping to accomplish. The biggest return on investment is in early childhood development. This knowledge is echoed even through St. Petersburg College President William Law. Dr. Law states that even St. Petersburg College is examining pre-kindergarten and elementary school as an initiative, because it is the foundation of all education. Beyond this, career training, apprenticeships and diploma programs are being examined to provide greater employment opportunities to provide a smoother transition from education into careers.
As for the Learn and Succeed Network, it is currently under rapid development. I was invited by the JWB Children’s Services Council of Pinellas and the Health and Human Services Coordinating Council to interview David Lawrence and to learn about the emerging Learn and Succeed Network. I ended up attending a meeting with a select group of rather powerful individuals comprised of local leaders and business persons in Pinellas County. These individuals have been asked to consider participating with this new Network due to the wide breadth of pertinent knowledge and resources that could help ensure the Network’s success.
As a native to Pinellas County and a graduate of Pinellas County Schools, I for one am grateful for these efforts, and I hope for much success as the Learn and Succeed Network forms and begins its important work. On February 8, 2012, the first official activity of the Learn and Succeed Network will take place at the St. Petersburg College, Seminole Campus. This event will focus on creating a common agenda through identifying key goals and measures. Additionally, workgroups will begin developing strategies to achieve these goals. This is an open event and registration is required through the Health and Human Services Coordinating Council here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/LearnandSucceedPlanning2012.