Harbor Style Harbor Style May 2017 : Page 81

O ur S chools Charlotte County Public Schools offer quality education, yet face declining enrollment and budget cuts. erhaps there has never been a time when public school students in Charlotte County have had so many opportunities both in the classroom and in after-school clubs and activities. The technological age has brought computers and other learning devices, including Promethean interactive “smart boards” to classrooms. Our students win national and international awards in robotics and Model UN competitions, and they enjoy successes in other arenas, including sports. At Lemon Bay High School there is even a state-of-the art marine lab. Charlotte County Technical College offers a variety of courses that prepare the high school graduate for the workforce in such fields as auto mechanics, nursing and the building industry. But while plenty of opportunity abounds in our public school system, enrollment is declining. Why? ³ T HE S TATE OF Story by Nancy J. Semon I Illustration by Ron Bates H ARBOR STYLE | 81

The State Of Our Schools

Nancy J. Semon

Charlotte County Public Schools offer quality education, yet face declining enrollment and budget cuts.

Perhaps there has never been a time when public school students in Charlotte County have had so many opportunities both in the classroom and in afterschool clubs and activities. The technological age has brought computers and other learning devices, including Promethean interactive “smart boards” to classrooms. Our students win national and international awards in robotics and Model UN competitions, and they enjoy successes in other arenas, including sports. At Lemon Bay High School there is even a state-of-the art marine lab. Charlotte County Technical College offers a variety of courses that prepare the high school graduate for the workforce in such fields as auto mechanics, nursing and the building industry. But while plenty of opportunity abounds in our public school system, enrollment is declining. Why?

As students across the county were preparing for spring break, HARBOR STYLE met with Charlotte County Public Schools Superintendent Steve Dionisio and also spoke with Michael Riley, school and community relations officer for the district, to talk about the state of our schools and challenges ahead. What we learned is that there’s a “Catch-22” scenario in the district. Unless something in the circle is broken, our enrollment will continue to decline and that, in turn, will lead to more budget cuts as the district receives funding from the state based on the number of students. But on the bright side, the dedication of teachers and administrators remains solid, and administration has promised that the quality of each student’s education will not be compromised.

Riley, who was an educator for many years, has lived in Charlotte County for 37 years. We asked him to address the problem of a declining enrollment and why our county’s population is growing at a time when younger families with schoolage children are leaving.

“We [Charlotte County] advertise ecotourism and retirement,” Riley stated. “We brag about and are proud of the fact that a number of national and state magazines have named us the best retirement place in America, and we spend all of our money advertising Charlotte County as an eco-tourism destination.” But he said the area needs to market the area as a place for younger families and children as well. “There has been no effort to draw young families to the area.”

Riley gave this example: “I love the City of Punta Gorda, but they spent a fortune refurbishing the tennis court in Gilchrist Park into pickle ball courts while the playground lay rotting. It would still be that way had not a group of young mothers started a fund-raising effort.” He was referring to Friends of the Gilchrist Park Playground that was organized to raise $100,000. Parents, community volunteers and the city worked closely together to update the playground. But although the city did appropriate money for playground improvements, additional fundraising was necessary to make further improvements that parents and citizens thought were needed.

Indeed, Charlotte County has been marketed as a retirement mecca for many years, and its population numbers reflect this. In Florida, Charlotte County ranks second in the number of people over 65; Sumter County comes in first, according to Pew Research and other statistical reports. But still, Charlotte County has been growing in population. In 2010, according to the US Census, there were 159,978 residents; in 2015 that number grew to 173,115, according to the county’s website, www.charlottecountyfl.gov. By 2020, Charlotte County is estimated to have a population of 178,223, according to the Office of Economic and Demographic Research (www.edr.state. fl.us). Meanwhile, our student population has been declining.

Dionisio noted that the population is fluid and that the county could very well see an uptick in the number of school-age residents in future years. But in the meantime, the county is seeing a loss of younger families with children.

Besides being marketed as a place for retirees for many decades, Charlotte County also lacks a number of good-paying jobs for younger families. Dionisio noted that many of our jobs are in the restaurant and service industries. But at one time, both the county population and the student population were growing, he said. This was due to the construction boom that brought in younger families whose parents worked in the building industry. After Hurricane Charley in 2004, a number of younger families left the county, Riley said. Later, after the building boom and real estate market collapsed, other families, many with school-age children, left the area.

Dionisio said that once the building boom slowed during the recession, younger families left to move to places where the construction industry was still lively, or perhaps to seek jobs in other professions. But he said that whether the district has more or less kids, each pupil will still get a quality education. “Teaching is an extremely noble profession,” he exclaimed. “Teachers call their students, their ‘kids’ and they take it to heart.”

Besides having a lack of high-paying jobs for younger workers, the lack of affordable housing is yet another reason why the county is losing younger families. “The average salary for a man [in our area] is around $26,700 and for a woman it is $26,000,” Riley said. “Rent is anywhere between $1,000 and $1,400” a month. Recent headlines indicate that the lack of affordable housing for those making $50,000 or under is a problem in our area. “What is there to entice a young professional family to move here, except if they either grew up here or have family here?” Riley asked.

Because of the declining student population, Dionisio was faced with a tough decision this school year – he had to cut 47 teachers, and “every school was affected,” he said. Furthermore, non-school-based personnel also were cut by 15 percent, he said.

Ironically, CCPS still needs teachers “in certain subjects – sciences, math and upper level courses,” Dionisio said. And here’s another challenge for the district: Charlotte County Public Schools does not pay what Sarasota County’s school district offers. The salary discrepancy is some $6,000 to $8,000 more for teachers’ starting salaries in Sarasota County versus Charlotte County, he said. Translated, this means that if a teacher in Charlotte County lives near the border of Sarasota County or in North Port near the Charlotte County line, they would likely be tempted to teach in Sarasota County because of the higher wages. Dionisio said that his wish list is to have Charlotte County pay its teachers’ salaries comparable to neighboring counties in order to keep and attract teachers. “We need a more competitive wage structure,” he said. “Sarasota has a lot of money; if you look across the fence, [teachers] see that they have more things, more toys and [higher] salaries.”

Charter schools are also drawing students away from Charlotte County, particularly in the northern part of the county. L.A. Ainger Middle School, for instance, has lost more students than other schools in the district as two of Sarasota’s charter schools – SKY and Imagine – have attracted students from the public middle school.

Fortunately for Charlotte County Public Schools, the district has a very good relationship with our own charter schools, Crossroads Hope Academy (formerly AMI Kids Crossroads), serving youth in a Punta Gorda foster care facility, and Florida Southwestern Collegiate High School, where students are chosen in a lottery system, Dionisio said.

Dionisio, like Riley, was a teacher himself, as was his wife Tina, who is now the principal at Punta Gorda Middle School. Both he and his wife are alumni of our district’s public schools, and he had nothing but positive things to say about the district and the merits of raising a family here. “I grew up here. It’s a great place to raise a family.” The Dionisios have two grown children in their early 20s, Nick and Haley, both graduates of Port Charlotte High School who went on to pursue higher degrees. Before becoming superintendent, Dionisio was the principal at Port Charlotte High School and served as the Dean of Students at The Academy.

Charlotte County certainly does have its benefits when it comes to attracting families. Dionisio cited the quality of our schools coupled with a low crime rate as well as a relatively lower cost of living index compared to other states and Florida cities and counties. But the lack of jobs for younger families remains to be one of the district’s biggest challenges, because if a child’s parents or caregiver cannot find work here, the family would no doubt move elsewhere, hence causing a drop in enrollment that affects both the school district’s budget and the amount of teachers the district can have on its payroll.

When we met with Dionisio, the current state legislature was still in session and determining what amount of money it would appropriate for each student. In 2016, “We received $7,200 per pupil,” he said.

When we asked him about declining enrollment that’s been heavily publicized recently, he answered, “It’s not like we have students leaving our district. We will graduate 1,200 kids [this year].” However, the district would also be enrolling just 1,000 kindergarten pupils, he added.

Our district’s enrollment declined by 340 students from 2013 to the start of this current school year, Dionisio confirmed.

Although it was unknown at press time what our state’s legislature will appropriate for each pupil, Riley said that “the State of Florida is in the bottom 10 year after year for per pupil funding. Even Mississippi and Alabama fund their schools better.”

There are 67 public school districts in Florida, and Charlotte County is ranked 34th, putting it in the middle, Dionisio pointed out. “We were number 48 two years ago,” he added. Its ranking has been rising, and so have some of the district’s schools’ rankings, but Dionisio cautioned that its schools grades are a bit misleading

Changing assessment tests sometimes cloud how well the individual student is doing, he said. And changing enrollments vary from year to year and school to school. Dionisio said that he would rather focus on the individual student’s performance from the previous year, rather than look at the school grades that are affected by a number of variables: different students, changing test methods, etc. Overall, the state gave Charlotte County Public Schools a “B” in 2016 – the same grade it got in 2015. Going back to 2010, our public school district earned an “A” that year and in 2011; a “B” in 2012; and “Cs” in 2013 and 2014.

But it all comes down to the students for Dionisio. “Kids will always be my priority,” he said. And he will often say that the pupils are his “business.”

Pride is evident when Dionisio, and Riley, talk about the students and alumni of Charlotte County Public Schools. Despite the recent budget cuts, many things will not change. When running a district, one has to make priorities. For Dionisio, priority number one is safety. From the time the pupil arrives on the school bus to the time the pupil is dismissed and heads for home, teachers and administrators work to make sure that child will arrive at school, and at home, safely. “When you send them on the bus you expect them to come home smarter than the day before – and safe.” He admitted that there is always a feeling of angst among educators during the time the pupil leaves the house and comes to school, to the time that child is delivered home safely.

And, of course, there is the matter of educating pupils to help them achieve their fullest potentials. Riley and Dionisio rattled off the names of a number of alumni from Charlotte County high schools, and it was amazing, indeed, to learn that some are names that have made national and international headlines. Nobel Peace Prize nominee Joel Davis comes to mind. A graduate of Port Charlotte High School, in 2015 he was nominated for the prestigious award whose former recipients included Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa and President Barack Obama. Davis was only 19 when he received the nomination for his work with Youth to End Sexual Violence, a group he started after participating in Robert Johnson’s Model UN class at PCHS. Davis went on to serve on the board of directors for the International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Conflict. Then a student at American University, Davis traveled from Washington, DC to New York City to work with the United Nations and alongside activist Angelina Jolie. There have also been professional athletes and those in the creative and performing arts who have made their mark on the national and world stage, plus scientists, doctors and engineers. You will meet some of them at the end of this story.

Then there are the mentors and teachers who have shaped many students’ lives. Dionisio praised Charlotte High School teacher Chris George’s robotics team that recently won a major competition. And then there is the previously mentioned Robert Johnson at Port Charlotte High School who has led the Model UN team for a good number of years. His classroom and storage rooms are filled with trophies that his students have brought home. Add these two to a list of many outstanding teachers who have helped to turn out an array of citizens who have contributed greatly to our society.

“There are doctors, lawyers and dentists who are alumni of our schools,” Dionisio said. He said graduates of our high schools have gone on to Ivy League schools. The ROTC programs have prepared other pupils for careers in the military. He called Charlotte County “a well-run community” that was preparing its students. “After all, they’re our future,” he emphasized.

A Word about Testing

Florida’s K-12 assessment system measures students’ achievement of Florida’s education standards that were developed and implemented to ensure that all students graduate from high school, ready for success in college, career and life. We went on to the Florida Department of Education website to see what kind of tests and how many are administered to our district’s pupils. The amount and number of tests seemed a bit daunting to those of us not in the education field. For instance, the Florida Standards Assessments (FSAs) test students in English language arts (ELA) for grades 3-10, mathematics for grades 3-8 and endof- course (EOC) assessments for Algebra 1, Geometry and Algebra 2.

Statewide Science Assessment testing measures student success with the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards and includes assessments in grades 5 and 8.

EOC assessments are computerbased tests designed to measure student achievement of the specified standards for middle- and high-school level courses in science (Biology 1), social studies (Civics and US History) and mathematics (Algebra 1, Geometry and Algebra 2.)

Charlotte County District grades, although given a “B” for the entire district, saw some disparities in individual schools. For instance, in 2016, individual school grades ranged from “A” to “C.” In previous years the same schools had different scores, with 2014 seeing two elementary schools getting a “D.” Also, in previous years, the district itself has ranged from an “A” to “C” score.

So we had to ask Dionisio whether the testing is completely fair and whether components such as a student’s grasp of the English language could also be a factor. He conceded that in Florida, language differences can come into play, explaining that biology, for instance, “is given in English.” Even in mathematics, some tests require word problems and if the student is not proficient in the English language, the pupil’s score would no doubt reflect the grade. The same holds true with language arts. But English is the language used for all students.

Another factor that might affect a student’s lower test score could be test anxiety and a support system at home. One elementary teacher who taught outside the state said that in her former district, pupils were very poor and did not have such luxuries as books in the home – a factor that also gives children an edge if they are surrounded by learning materials. Also, the majority of her pupils’ parents did not speak English, and English was truly a second language for her “kids.” She admitted that testing was really not fair for her students, as they didn’t have the vocabulary that English-speaking pupils had.

Dionisio said that language is not a major problem in our district, but he did say that in other parts of Florida, such as Miami-Dade, it does affect testing averages. Testing gives a district an idea of how it fares in the state overall, and also in the nation and internationally, because Florida also participates in National and International Assessments.

A Look at our Graduates

Apparently, Charlotte County Public Schools have no difficulty turning out students who go on to become leaders in their fields. With Riley’s and Dionisio’s help, we came up with a list of just some of the high schools’ accomplished graduates.

Riley reminisced on the past decades he has seen CCPS students go on to achieve new heights. “Thirty-seven years ago the first group of sixth graders at Meadow Park Elementary School, who are now 47 years old, started me on this journey. Today these former children now have children of their own, many who have graduated from our schools like their parents and even grandparents before them. They are teachers, doctors, lawyers, business owners, law enforcement officers, fire and EMS, nurses, accountants, military, CEOs, executive directors, professional sports stars, celebrities, community leaders, and graduates of our nation’s top colleges and graduates of all five of our military academies.”

He said that just as important “are those who are fathers and mothers, who love and care for their children. These former children, now adults, value and respect their communities in which they live. They are a reflection of their youth and the community in which they were brought up. These are the products of Your Charlotte County Public Schools.”

Well said, Riley. Now, let’s meet some of our CCPS graduates!

Charlotte High School

• Amanda Carr: BMX biker, 2016 Rio Olympian (representing Thailand, her mother’s native country) and Asian Games gold medalist. She currently coaches soccer at CHS.

• Jeff Corsaletti: Professional baseball player with the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A minor league affiliate of the Boston Red Sox

• Tommy Fulton: Three-time state champion distance runner and one of the first four men and the first African-American to run the four-minute mile.

• John Janick: CEO of Interscope Geffen A&M Records. He was hand-picked by Jimmy Iovine to be the music legend’s successor.

• Terry Knecht: National Teacher of the Year in 1985. Was appointed by President Clinton as the first ever Special Adviser on Teaching to the Department of Education.

• Matthew LaPorta: Major league first baseman for the Cleveland Indians and a 2008 Beijing bronze medal Olympian. LaPorta began his freshman year at Port Charlotte High School before transferring to CHS.

• Burton Lawless: Former football guard who played for the Dallas Cowboys in three Super Bowls from 1975-1979. He is listed as one of the “100 Greatest Players of the first 100 years” for Florida high school football.

• Joe Mashie: Was in charge of the New Year’s Eve Ball Drop in Times Square two years ago and was Michelle Obama’s travel coordinator at the White House.

• Tommy Murphy: Outfielder for the L.A. Angels of Anaheim

• Nate Spears: Professional baseball player with the Cleveland Indians organization

Port Charlotte High School

• Joel Davis: Nobel Peace Prize nominee at the age of 19, whose story appears above

• John Elias: Began working as a maintenance worker for the Charlotte County Board of Commissioners soon after graduation and is now the Manager of Maintenance and Operations for Charlotte County, overseeing more than 100 employees and major projects.

• Vinnie Fiorello and Chris DeMakes: Members of Less Than Jake, a ska punk band

• John Hall: Placekicker for the New York Jets from 1997-2002; transferred to the Washington Redskins, who he played for until 2006 when he was released and retired.

• Anthony Hargrove: Defensive end who helped the New Orleans Saints win Super Bowl XLIV. He also played for the St. Louis Rams, Buffalo Bills and Seattle Seahawks . • David Holmberg: Pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds

• Asher Levine: Fashion designer who, at the age of 22 in 2010, designed for Lady GaGa

• Amy (Kessel) Norman: Vice President of National Transfer Centers for Hospital Corporation of America (HCA)

Lemon Bay High School

• Christopher Baker: NASA contractor at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., working as part of the engineering team overseeing the design of NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) vehicle.

• Trey M. Chabot: Junior Environmental Analyst with Volpe Department of Transportation, assisting all 50 states on environmental compliance and monitoring of transportation projects and the impact on the environment.

• Jordan Dillmore: Registered Nurse at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in the neonatal ICU

• Bonnie (Garcia) Gloeckner: Academic Program Specialist at the Department of Biological Science at Florida State University and lead undergraduate adviser for more than 2,000 students.

• David D. Lutz: Structural Project Engineer at WGI, specializing in bridge design; currently working on design of two toll facilities.

• Korey Provencher: Won an Emmy in 2015 as producer for the Ellen DeGeneres Show.

• Stephanie Murphy: Process Engineer with BP at its Houston office.

• Nick Williams: Environment/Infrastructure Manager at General Motors. He keeps their information systems humming and updated.

And trust us, these lists are highly abbreviated. We could not even begin to list all the names of accomplished graduates that we were provided.

Hopefully the recent drop in enrollments will be a temporary situation. According to Charlotte County Economic Development (www.floridasinnovationcoast.com), by 2020 there will be 24,885 children under the age of 20; in 2015 there were 24,523 pupils under the age of 20.

As Dionisio pointed out, no one can truly predict what the student population will be in the future, but here is that “Catch-22” we were talking about at the beginning of this story: businesses will come if they have a younger workforce, some of whom might need more affordable housing. Apparently Charlotte County, which has the second highest number of residents over the age of 65 in Florida, is not known for having a younger, vital workforce. Without a younger workforce, children won’t be coming to our area and therefore our local schools will continue to see a declining enrollment.

But as our real estate market has begun to boom once again with new construction and even new neighborhoods such as Babcock Ranch being built, there will be a need for workers of all kinds – professionals, builders, tradesmen, etc. to serve our populace. And yes, we will have a greater need for those in the service industries as new hotels and restaurants are also being planned for our area. So as Dionisio stated, population does change, and the trend for our future just might lie in younger families.

Read the full article at http://trendmag2.trendoffset.com/article/The+State+Of+Our+Schools/2767059/402175/article.html.

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