LARGO — Nine months into the job, Stacy Carlson’s office is still coming together.
The newest addition is now the room’s centerpiece: a stately wooden desk that once belonged to Gus Stavros, the founder of the Pinellas Education Foundation.
The desk is now hers, as is the role she inherited from Terry Boehm, her predecessor who spent 16 years as president of the foundation. Boehm was also her boss at her first job out of college at the Hillsborough Education Foundation across the bay.
For Carlson, 46, taking the reins of the 30-year-old organization that has been named the top education foundation in the country for three consecutive years allows her career to come full-circle.
"I actually feel very blessed that I have the opportunity to kind of work in education my entire career," she said. "I think there’s a lot of opportunity in Pinellas."
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Carlson, a Tampa native, helped the Hillsborough foundation get on its feet in the early 1990s. It became a launching pad for her career in nonprofit education.
She graduated from the University of South Florida and at 21, her connections through her sorority, Kappa Delta, landed Carlson her first job as an assistant with the Hillsborough foundation.
The gig blended her interests: philanthropy, public education and business.
"I very quickly got bit by this bug of working in public education," Carlson said. There, she learned how an organization could improve outcomes via private investment.
After studying abroad and earning a master’s and doctoral degree, she soon was named the first-ever executive director for the Consortium of Florida Education Foundations, which now oversees 64 foundations.
Carlson always knew she’d want to come back to local education foundations. She was the president of the Florida Philanthropic Network for less than a year when Boehm announced his retirement.
Boehm, who was not part of the selection committee, said Carlson was well connected with plenty of experience in the nonprofit world.
"I’ve heard from board members that they’re very happy with the choice," he said. "She’s doing a great job. I kept telling them afterwards that she’s probably going to take the foundation to a whole new level. She’s got the talent and expertise."
To Carlson, the job was worth the commute from her home in Tampa, where one of her three sons attends a Hillsborough public school and other two private schools.
"I’m not a job hopper," she said, but leading and working with local education organizations again is "where the rubber meets the road."
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The Pinellas Education Foundation is possibly best known for its Take Stock in Children initiative, a scholarship program for low-income kids, and Enterprise Village and Finance Park, the popular field trip destinations for students to get hands-on experience. But few know the foundation behind those programs — or why they’ve been funded for years.
Those signature programs will continue, but Carlson wants to make the foundation known for its overarching goals.
"We’ve been around for 30 years and no one knows who we are," she said. "I want people to understand the difference we’re trying to make in education."
At the foundation’s first annual report under Carlson’s tenure on a recent Friday, the Pinellas foundation unveiled its new mission, which emphasizes a desire to provide a high quality education for all students — specifically calling out equity.
Carlson is taking a hard look at how effective existing programs are and re-evaluating them to ensure donors’ dollars and resources are well spent. The foundation’s work and $10,000 investment to bridge the gender gap — specifically the effort to get elementary school-aged boys to read as well as the girls — may get a refined look.
"If we really want to impact student achievement," she said, "we need to be looking at the research-based interventions that we know make an impact."
Although the foundation works independently from the school district — and has historically shined a light on where efforts ought to be focused, like career and technical education — she said it helps that the two entities are aligned toward the same goals. Carlson regularly meets with Pinellas school superintendent Mike Grego.
"I think she’s doing a magnificent job especially in focusing the foundation’s work around the school district’s strategic plan and vice versa," Grego said. "Not that it wasn’t before, but I think she’s bringing a real laser focus so that if it’s not advancing the achievement of the students, we need to question it."
Carlson has also formed a task force to assess the foundation’s current programs and determine if there’s a new initiative the foundation could pursue. The findings are expected to be unveiled around May.
The foundation is exploring the idea of joining the district to enhance supports for teachers and specialized trainings for principals.
"Ultimately," she said, "we want to try to impact change that will last beyond us."
Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.