Pinellas County prioritizes education from cradle to career: Learn and Succeed Network

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The Health and Human Services Coordinating Council is not just a really long name in Pinellas County that pops up as a blurb here or a slight mention there supporting this or that. Unfortunately for much of Pinellas, the powerful work the Council does behind the scenes too often goes unnoticed. The truth is, this Pinellas County council is a mighty force that does actively coordinate and provide leadership to address some of the most critical issues of our county, and now they are prioritizing learning in a unique way—through forming the Learn and Succeed Network.

The Health and Human Services Coordinating Council already coordinates and provides oversight to the Homeless Leadership Network (soon to be known as the Homeless Leadership Board), the Health and Behavioral Health Network, the Low Income Housing Leadership Network and the Disaster Recovery Leadership Network along with the Disaster Recovery Services Coalition. As critical as these networks are to our community, a new and equally critical network is being born—the Learn and Succeed Network—to address education needs from cradle to career.

Denise Grosebeck, executive director of the Health and Human Services Coordinating Council said, “The Network will bring together community leaders, education professionals and business partners to create a shared agenda for improving the education pipeline of Pinellas County.”

Commissioner Karen Seel talked about the structure of the Network, reporting that three priority areas have been identified: school readiness, school success and workforce readiness.

I had an opportunity to speak with David Lawrence, Jr., the esteemed guest who provided an introduction on why this Network is critical to addressing education in our community.

Lawrence was particularly skilled at speaking on this issue. He retired in 1999 as publisher of The Miami Herald to work in the area of early childhood development and readiness. He now serves as president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation and “University Scholar for Early Childhood Development and Readiness” at the University of Florida, and he leads The Children’s Movement of Florida. Lawrence also is a member of the Governor’s Children’s Cabinet and twice chaired the Florida Partnership for School Readiness.

D. Gay Lancaster, executive director of the JWB Children’s Services Council of Pinellas invited Lawrence to speak at this introductory meeting of the Learn and Succeed Network after having known him for many years, working on statewide initiatives together.

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% 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.

“Parents are key to the solution but are not the cause,” said Lawrence. Too often we try to blame parents for being uncaring about their children. Lawrence insisted, “Parent skill-building must begin with the knowledge that parents love their children. The most important thing you can give to your children is a set of values, and health, education, nurturing and love are most important to the growth of a child. When we discuss parent skill-building, we must remember this.”

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.

The Learn and Succeed Network will receive funding from the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners, JWB Children’s Services Council of Pinellas and the United Way of Tampa Bay.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.