Making Connections to Boost Classroom Instruction

pamstewart-smallLong before I began my teaching career, I worked as a switchboard operator at vending machine factory in Aurora, Illinois. Through the summers after high school, I worked a number of odd jobs, including driving a forklift and packaging textbooks.

Part of the time I was a relief switchboard operator and my sole job was to use electrical cords to connect one caller to another on a giant, high-back switchboard. I had to make sure that when a caller dialed the switchboard he or she was connected to the right person.

After almost 30 of years working on behalf of students, I still think about that job and how today’s teachers are often tasked with helping students and their families make important connections. Whether they helped a student understand a real life application of what they’ve learned, sent home information to parents, or even helped the entire family receive additional services, teachers are a vital link for students.

Last week I had the pleasure of announcing the finalists for the 2015 Macy’s/Florida Teacher of the Year Award. I can tell you that each one of these talented educators has helped students make connections between classroom knowledge and future goals and I know there are many more outstanding educators inspiring students to find their passion. I hope that all of Florida’s teachers were able to spend this year’s Teacher Appreciation Week doing what they love and knowing that we truly appreciate them for it.

On behalf of the Florida Department of Education, I want to thank Florida’s teacher for being the invaluable link between students, their families and a lifetime of success.


Pam Stewart

Commissioner of Education

Celebrate Florida College System Month


Randy Hanna

Chancellor of the Florida College System

Florida Department of Education

April is national community college month, and here in Florida, we’re celebrating the impact the 28 institutions in the Florida College System have on students, families, communities and the state.

I was a first generation college student from rural Gadsden County. The Florida College System was designed for students like me to be able to access high-quality education and job training at affordable prices.

I know first-hand the iImagempact going to college can have on someone’s life. And I’m proud to represent the nation’s best college system.

Our system is comprised of 28 colleges, community colleges and state colleges with locations all across the state. Colleges offer a variety of programs, including
certificates, associate degrees and, in some cases, bachelor’s degrees. They have an open-door admissions policy, meaning anyone with a high school diploma (or its equivalent) can enter. And our 2+2 system guarantees Associate in Arts graduates admission to upper-division at state universities or colleges offering bachelor’s degree programs.

But it doesn’t stop there. Our colleges are committed to ensuring that students succeed. Fifty-four percent of juniors and seniors in the State University System are Florida College System transfers. Almost 82 percent of our graduates are employed or continuing education within one year of graduation. The average starting salary is $46,186. And 93 percent of our graduates remain in Florida to work, ready to fill the needs of local business and industry.

I believe the state has a responsibility to help Floridians succeed in college and careers. As we celebrate Florida College System Month throughout April, I encourage you to visit our website for more information about how our colleges are fulfilling their mission to improve lives through education.

Just for Parents Newsletter March Issue Available Online

Have you signed up for the Florida Department of Education’s Just for Parents newsletter? Send us an email at to sign up.

This month’s edition features information on Florida standards, Individual Education Plans (IEP) and recent student accomplishments.


Florida Recruits Top STEM Students

scholarsCommissioner Pam Stewart

Even before I took the stage to welcome attendees to the 2014 Sunshine State Scholars Conference, I realized that this year’s scholars were quite possibly the most talented group we have ever invited.

The conference, a joint project between the department and the Florida Education Foundation, invites each district’s top 11th grade STEM (Science, Technology,  Engineering, Mathematics) student to be recognized and encouraged to begin their postsecondary career in Florida.

I think it is important to know this year’s attendees were not only the state’s top STEM students, but many were also talented writers, musicians, athletes and leaders. For example, Michael from Okeechobee County recently finished his first solo flight and is completing requirements for a private pilot’s license.

Savannah from Charlotte County recently placed in the Florida Girls Weightlifting State Finals and Vivek from Broward County developed a mobile app to help middle school students prepare for the MathCounts competition.

Chyanne from Marion County started a project called “Stockings for Shands,” where she collects coloring books, crayons and other items for children receiving infusion treatments at Shands Hospital.

I wish I had time to highlight each scholar, but I am confident that you will begin seeing all of their names as they become our state’s next generation of leaders.

For more information on Florida’s Sunshine State Scholars program, visit the Florida Education Foundation website.

A special thanks to the conference sponsors who made the event a success, including AT&T, Helios Education Foundation, Universal Orlando Resorts, Atkins, Gulf Power Company, The Florida Lottery and The Mosaic Company.

Florida Honors Outstanding Principals and Assistant Principals

Mickey Mouse wasn’t the only one having a magical time last week, just ask the 37 Florida principals and assistant principals who were honored as the best school leaders in the state.

It wasn’t that long ago that I was serving as a Marion County school principal, so you can imagine how exciting it was to recognize the hard work and dedication of these wonderful leaders. Each of the attendees was nominated by their district to attend the 2014 Commissioner’s Leadership Academy, acknowledging the critical role their leadership plays in student and school success.


Florida’s 2014 Principal of the Year Finalists

I felt very fortunate to know and have worked with several of the district winners. In fact, one of the honorees, Principal John McCollum, was my mentor while I was an elementary school principal in Marion County.

Like John, most of the principals attending the summit came from schools where almost all of their students are on free- or reduced-price lunch plans. What inspires me about these principals is that they do not let a student’s circumstances get in the way of the school’s ability to provide a first-rate education.

When it was my turn to address the attendees, I thanked them for being on the front lines with students, teachers and parents every day. Although the work can be overwhelming, Florida teachers and principals are truly making a difference in the lives of children, ensuring they are prepared for the future…and hopefully having a little fun along the way.

Commissioner Pam Stewart

Florida Department of Education 

Guest Blog: Rural Students in Florida Get Chance to Become STEM Scholars

Phidell Lewis, a senior at a high school in a thinly populated area of the Florida Panhandle, had two big adventures this past summer.

He spent four days with top scientists as part of a group analyzing nanomaterials, and he attended a forum of engineers representing various industries, where he learned about STEM career paths. Both opportunities came about because Phidell is one of hundreds of students from rural communities in Florida who are STEM Scholars—part of a new State initiative to expose students to opportunities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) through its Race to the Top grant.


FloridaLearns STEM Scholars program is giving students opportunities to work with peers to solve problems in a variety of technical fields under the guidance of professional scientists and engineers. Photo credit: FloridaLearns STEM Scholars

“The STEM program allows our students to make better sense of what they’re learning on a day-to-day basis, and it helps them become better-prepared employees for our local industries,” said Ralph Yoder, superintendent of Calhoun County.

In other efforts to boost the skills of Florida’s labor force, the State is investing in training college graduates in STEM fields to become teachers, and encourages them to share that knowledge by becoming an educator.

“Funds from Florida’s Race to the Top award have expedited efforts already underway to better prepare students for college and careers,” said Brenda Crouch, Program Manager for the FloridaLearns STEM Scholars Program.”  It is a win for Florida’s economic future.

Students chosen to participate in the program are paired with mentors and receive intensive hands-on experiences with STEM professionals, rigorous courses during the school year, and opportunities to collaborate with other advanced students. Pam Stewart, Florida’s Commissioner of Education, said that the State had seen a 49 percent enrollment increase in accelerated STEM courses and STEM career academies since 2009. In some rural counties, students received industry certifications for the first time in 2013. More than 1,000 high school students have participated in the STEM Scholars program since 2012. Roderick Robinson, who mentors students in the program in Franklin County, said watching his students’ interest in STEM grow has been a “phenomenal experience.” Prior to the STEM program, many of his students were unfamiliar with STEM careers. After participating in the program, however, Robinson estimates that 95 percent of his students are now interested in STEM majors.

One component of the STEM Scholars program is a four-day Summer Challenge that gives students opportunities to work with peers to solve problems in a variety of technical fields under the guidance of professional scientists and engineers. This past summer students worked on problems involving ecology, physics, inorganic chemistry, photonics, marine habitats, underwater robotics and alternative energy sources.

Jordan Sparks, a 12th-grader is a STEM Scholar from Freeport High School, east of Pensacola on the Gulf of Mexico. He was one of nine students from Walton County who participated in a summer project at the nearby Choctawhatchee Bay to monitor water quality, learn about sea grass and restore oyster reefs.

“My favorite part was looking at how the little things we do can impact an entire ecosystem,” said Jordan, who is now considering a career in marine biology. “It felt good to fix something that other people had broken. It’s really opened my eyes to the world of science.”

Jordan’s mentor, Linda Young, said the program has provided students in the area with hands-on learning opportunities that they would not have had otherwise. She emphasized the value of the opportunity for students to work with others on demanding projects. “Not only does it improve STEM skills, but it also gets students outside of their comfort zone and working with other students as part of a team.”

Read the full story on Progress.

To read the official blog of the U.S. Department of Education, visit Homeroom.