A Homecoming for Best Practices – Part 2


That is the only word that can describe many of the career academies available in St. Johns County schools. Career academies provide smaller learning environments where students are involved in hands-on, real-world projects. Areas of study span from banking to architecture, information technology to biology.

On Friday, Chancellor Rod Duckworth and I traveled with Dr. Joe Joyner to a handful of the district’s career academies, witnessing the excitement and innovation of participating students. I thought I had seen just about everything when students from Bartram Trails High School unveiled their sculpture created from more than 200 recycled bottles.

Not to be outdone, both Ponte Vedra and St. Augustine high schools featured similar project-based learning exercises. My next stop at Ponte Vedra High School’s Academy of Biotechnical and Medical Research was definitely an eye-opening look into the meticulous science of biology. While watching each student don safety goggles and handle delicate lab equipment, I felt like an extra on the set of CSI.

The school also features another career academy focused on international business marketing, with quite an impressive computer lab. There I met a wonderful young lady set on becoming more computer proficient than Floridians twice her age.

Chancellor Rod Duckworth works with students from the St. Johns Aerospace Academy at St. Augustine High School.

My last stop for the day was the St. Johns Aerospace Academy and St. Johns Academy of Future Teachers at St. Augustine High School. I can tell you there is no greater joy than watching young people develop skill sets to make their dreams come true. And, meeting with so many aspiring teachers, it certainly felt like these programs had come full circle.

A Homecoming for Best Practices

I’ve always felt that my passion for education began years before I started teaching in Florida’s public schools at Ward-Highlands Elementary in 1981. In fact, even my personal life is deeply connected to education issues, as the mother and mother-in-law of two outstanding teachers and grandmother of two elementary school students.

While in St. Johns County on Friday, I wasn’t just visiting local students, teachers and parents as the Commissioner of Education. I was reunited with them as a friend and colleague. Before joining the Department of Education as Chancellor of Schools last year, I served as the St. Johns County Deputy Superintendent.

A few weeks ago, Superintendent of St. Johns County schools, Dr. Joseph Joyner, invited Chancellor of Workforce Education Rod Duckworth and me on a tour of innovative programs and career academies at area schools. I was delighted to meet with so many educators employing new ways to meet the needs of today’s students.

Switzerland Point Middle School’s IT Career Academy

Friday morning, I met with officials at Bartram Trails High School where students from the Academy of Design and Construction unveiled their new “green” project. The large tree sculpture they had planted in the school’s courtyard was “green” in more ways than one. The sculpture was created from the ingenuity of 11 career academy students and more than 200 recycled plastic bottles. It was wonderful to watch these students share their passion for architecture and project-based learning.

Bartram Trails is not a stranger to student-led, hands-on projects. In 2005, the school partnered with VyStar Credit Union to provide a student bank, fostering financial literacy and business leadership.

Another blog will be on its way this week detailing other exciting programs I visited in St. Johns County.

Fort Walton Beach High School Visit

Today Governor Scott and I met with Principal Couvillon of Fort Walton Beach High School to kick off our Education Listening Tour visit. Although the weather was less than desirable, the teachers and students were very excited and welcomed us to their school.

We met with approximately 20 teachers in two groups and discussed their thoughts on accountability.  While they agree with measurement and accountability, they want to be sure it is as fair as possible.

They also expressed concern over the testing window and while they understand that it is necessary in order to have time to get all students on the computer for testing; they expressed frustration at having to get standards taught as much as six weeks before school is out.

After meeting with teachers, we visited an American government class where several students asked very thoughtful questions about education, funding, and jobs.

Open communication leads to productive conversations

During yesterday’s Education Listening Tour visits to Lexington Middle School and Madeira Beach Fundamental K-8 School, both teachers and parents were very open with Governor Scott.

Many attendees remarked on how comfortable his humble manner made them feel while voicing their concerns; they really felt like they were being heard. While discussing the education system and what improvements were needed, the Governor also asked for solutions. Many took advantage of the opportunity and provided great responses, while others wanted to do a bit more research and respond on the Governor’s website.

The parents and teachers of Lexington Middle School and Madeira Beach Fundamental had great ideas and are looking forward to increased communication with the State.

Great Discussions at Boca Raton High School

Governor Rick Scott and the Deputy Chancellor for Educator Quality, Kathy Hebda participated in the 9/11 Commemoration ceremony at Boca Raton High School, and Governor Scott recounted his personal experiences on that day.  The school’s JROTC and chorus provided a moving and dignified memorial to those who died and those who lost loved ones that day.

After the ceremony, Governor Scott and Kathy met with students, teachers, and parents to discuss the rising cost of college tuition. During the discussion, a teacher referred to the cost of text books that are paid by the district and how much the same books cost online.

Teachers affirmed that they want to be sure that they are evaluated fairly and that student progress and their unique rates of learning are taken into account.

The Governor asked for input on how we could improve evaluation systems and how teachers’ work could be measured.  When asked how he applied measurement in the medical field, the Governor gave great examples of how doctors’ mortality rates and other expectations with regard to patients were measured taking into account the illness of the patient and other factors.

The Governor stressed that he was looking for good ideas and solutions to improve the education system in Florida.

Education Listening Tour Visits Southwest Miami Senior High School

Today I had the honor of participating in a 9/11 Memorial Service at Southwest Miami Senior High School with the Student Council and Army JROTC – Eagle Battalion cadets. These students did a phenomenal job of honoring those individuals who lost their lives on that tragic day 11 years ago.

 While touring classrooms and speaking with students, I realized that they were just as engaged and active in education as their parents and teachers. These students asked great questions and were well informed about what is happening in their school and across the state.

 I think it is important that we as educators, administrators, and decision makers remember that while we want what is best for our students, we should also listen and understand what their educational wants and need are.  We must keep our students actively engaged and informed about education.

 Our discussion with the students and teachers at Southwest Miami Senior High is proof that Florida is headed in the right direction.

Pinedale Elementary has P-A-N-D-A Pride!

It was great visiting with the teachers, parents, and students of Pinedale Elementary, “Home of the Pandas,” in Jacksonville, Fla. Governor Scott and I had the opportunity to hear from several teachers who were able to share their thoughts and ideas openly on improving Florida’s education system.

Shortly after our teacher meeting, we toured the afterschool program that serves more than 150 students. Whether the children were participating in activities, reading a book, or finishing up homework, it was clear that the students of Pinedale Elementary had a strong support system behind them motivating them to be successful.

As our afternoon at Pinedale began to come to a close, we sat down and spoke with a group of parents. After only a few minutes of discussion, I noticed how much these parents loved their students. I could hear the passion in their voices; these parents want what is best for the students of Pinedale Elementary and are great advocates for this school.

This was such an inspiring event and I can’t wait to continue this tour with Governor Rick Scott.

Panhandle School Visits


Warrington Middle School

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit Warrington Middle School in Escambia County. I enjoyed meeting Superintendent Malcolm Thomas, students, teachers, school board members, PTA members and administrators. Warrington is one of the state’s Intervene schools, and during my visit, I saw first-hand the challenges they are facing, and the work they are doing to improve the academic outcomes of their students. I was encouraged to see innovative learning approaches, particularly when it comes to their new National Flight Academy where students will obtain hands-on aviation classroom experiences. The program is a joint effort between the district and Pensacola’s Naval Air Station, and is the first of its kind in the nation. What a great way for students to learn STEM-focused knowledge that will help prepare them for success throughout school and in the workforce. I look forward to hearing more about this program, and appreciate the community’s active involvement in helping this school improve.  

Emerald Coast Middle School

I also visited Emerald Coast Middle School in Walton County. This new facility is quite impressive. It was interesting to see the creative approaches they are taking to use technology to aid in their students’ education.  One class had students using iPods to listen and view the day’s lesson. I also saw a music class where students were tasked with identifying various musical instruments through the use of a smart board. These represent exciting examples of how our schools are using technology to augment the learning process, and I appreciate Superintendent Carlene Anderson’s leadership and staff for their work in this district.  

It was great to see how excited our students and teachers are about making this the best school year yet. I want to continue listening and learning, and will be visiting more schools around the state soon.