Community investing in improving education


A who’s who of Escambia County converged Monday afternoon at Sanders Beach Community Center.

The reason? A shared interest for improving economics and education in the county.

About 250 community leaders from various sectors such as business, education, faith-based, government and law enforcement spent four hours at the community center for the Achieve Escambia Cradle to Career Community Summit.

​“For the last 10 to 15 years it’s been all on the teachers,” Escambia Superintendent Malcolm Thomas said. “It’s great from the teachers’ perspective to know they’re not alone. The army is coming to help us.”
Four prominent business executives in Debbie Calder (Navy Federal), Stan Connally (Gulf Power), Susan Davis (Sacred Heart) and Mark Faulkner (Baptist Healthcare) put the initiative in motion last summer when they aligned their resources to hire a company called StriveTogether to consult and advise community leaders on how to improve the county though its Achieve Escambia initiative.

StriveTogether engages executive and grassroots partners to improve student achievement by moving resources to proven strategies. The company launched in the Cincinnati area in 2006 and through its “Cradle to Career” initiative reported positive improvements in 40 of 53 educational outcomes during its initial five years.

StriveTogether Senior Fellow Kathryn Merchant and Senior Manager Hany White spoke to the crowd Monday about the long-term objective and sought their opinions on how to proceed.
This will be the hardest work you’ll ever love,” White said.

Achieve Escambia teams for sectors such as accountability and governance, education, and parent advisory are being formed, and a program director will potentially be hired as early as this summer.

Discussions about early-childhood development dominated a significant portion of the summit. Research by the Studer Community Institute and the University of West Florida Office of Economic Development and Engagement indicates about one-third of kindergartners in the School District show up unprepared for the first day of school.

One of the primary challenges for Achieve Escambia is determining how to positively impact children at the crucial developmental ages of birth to 3.

“You’ve got to catch them young. We do early intervention six weeks to 3 years of age, and the problem is those areas of pockets of poverty,” said Dr. Sherry White, president and CEO of Capstone Adaptive Learning and Therapy Centers.
The number of parents at the summit who live in poverty came up in discussion. Hany White asked parents of kids in the Escambia County School District to raise their hands. Dozens of hands shot in the air. But when she asked for parents who live in poverty only one woman bravely raised her hand.

Thomas said therein lies a problem.

“It’s going to take intervening in neighborhoods,” he said. “We’re going to have to go to them, because they’re not coming to us.”

Admiral LeRoy, founder and publisher emeritus of Out Front Magazine and a former teacher in the county, agreed with Thomas that infiltrating those neighborhoods is an important piece to the puzzle.

LeRoy accepted a position on the Community Awareness Team. He said bringing education up to acceptable standards is the priority and that requires the business sector aligning with educators and understanding its role in the process.

“We have to make sure this isn’t seen as business leaders telling educators what to do,” he said.
Calder said improving economics and education in the county requires a collaborative effort from a diverse group. She sat at a table sharing input with county commissioner candidate Karen Sindel, Sacred Heart employees, an attorney and educators.

“If every table’s like that, imagine the big takeaways that we can get,” Calder said. “Each one of us in the room today want this to outlive us. It’s a long-term strategy. It’s not a short-term solution. We need to understand that, because if you keep talking about that, it brings in that patience factor that you need people to have.”

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