Column: Community engagement is the answer to help rescue K-12 education in the Tampa Bay area

Published Aug. 19, 2016

When Mort Elementary opened its doors this month, one of the Tampa Bay area's lowest-performing elementary schools became a "community school." That means the school is providing to the students and their families community services like housing and employment assistance, parenting counseling, food, clothes, and eventually health, dental and mental health care. The goal is to meet a family's basic needs so their kids can focus on learning in the classroom. That is especially true at Mort, where 99 percent of the school population is eligible for free and reduced-price lunch.

This status change at Mort Elementary reflects a much deeper transformation occurring in our community. Reaching this point required dedicated community engagement from local organizations such as the Children's Home Society of Florida, the University Area Community Development Center, Tampa Family Health Centers, Tampa Innovation Alliance and the USF College of Education.

Mort's story highlights the importance of community involvement in improving our schools because our students — and our future workforce — deserve a quality education that enables greater access to well-paying jobs and a brighter future. We often expect our school system to fix itself with our tax dollars and elected officials. But school systems face severe limits in financial support and human capital.

As a member of the Council for Educational Change, a nonprofit that partners business executives with school principals to help bridge the student achievement gap, I have witnessed the transformative power of community engagement. Through the Council for Educational Change's CEO/Principal partnership model, business executives mentor school principals on strategic planning, problem-solving, team-building, innovative thinking and a myriad of corporate leadership skills that focus on improving the quality of student education.

In an effort to improve student performance at Mort, the Council for Educational Change partnered principal Woodland Johnson with Vistra Communications CEO Brian Butler. Johnson and Butler developed a strategic plan to tackle the issues that were blocking Mort's success. To support their plan, the Council for Educational Change engaged the Spurlino Foundation, which generously provided the partnership with a $100,000 grant. We matched the funding and provided a mentoring coach to enable both partners to achieve their goals. Among other accomplishments, the $200,000 is providing technology to classrooms for students and teachers trapped in the digital divide.

Principal Johnson's ability to embrace partnerships with the private sector would never have been accomplished without the constant support of the Hillsborough School District and superintendent Jeff Eakins. It has required many dimensions of leadership on their part to get us this far, and I have no doubt that we will accomplish our goal of transforming Mort into a well-performing school despite the socioeconomic challenges of the neighborhood.

The Council for Educational Change has previously collaborated with the district to improve other Hillsborough schools. Case in point: The Council for Educational Change and Hillsborough County Public Schools implemented a three-year Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) project with a $471,000 grant from the Helios Education Foundation. The project assembled principals, assistant principals, guidance counselors and STEM teachers from nine Hillsborough schools to implement a STEM program for middle schoolers. The project was so successful, the district implemented the STEM middle school curriculum model districtwide.

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Mort Elementary stands as a ray of hope for our community because we see proof that challenged schools can reinvent themselves by offering quality public school education with access to public services. But principals and the school district cannot do this alone. They require each of us to become involved and take ownership of our schools.

Providing executive mentorships and resources to school leaders yields positive results, just as private companies invest in their CEOs and employees to execute a successful operation. As a retired business executive, I can say there is nothing more gratifying than enabling principals and teachers to change the lives of our students — our future workforce. Quality education is a great equalizer and a means to ending the cycle of poverty among families struggling to provide a better future for their kids.

Gene Marshall is the immediate past chairman of the board of trustees for the Council for Educational Change, an independent educational nonprofit organization serving the state of Florida. He is a founding member of the board of Northstar Bank — a community bank organized in the state of Florida and headquartered in Tampa. He is a retired senior vice president of JPMorgan Chase Bank.