Column: Working together to help Pinellas students succeed

St. Petersburg College President Tonjua Williams [SPC]
St. Petersburg College President Tonjua Williams [SPC]
Published Nov. 9, 2018

The American Dream is based on opportunity.

We all deserve a realistic chance to achieve our goals, gain economic mobility for our families and live a fulfilling life. We know that education plays a key role in any pathway to success and that includes the successful completion of technical/workforce certificates, apprenticeships or college degrees. We believe the journey along the path should be clear and uncomplicated. The result? A good fit in a rewarding career that brings personal satisfaction as well as a sustainable income. To get on the right path, awareness, access and achievement are critical components that change lives.

St. Petersburg College, the Pinellas County School District, including Pinellas Technical College, and the University of South Florida St. Petersburg have worked hard for years in our respective areas to offer quality education options to Pinellas residents.

Now, however, we must work together to provide a seamless path for all, allowing individuals to cross between schools and programs without losing stride. To reach that goal, we have formed an Educational Ecosystem designed to ensure that everyone, from all income levels, communities and backgrounds is familiar with educational opportunities — especially opportunities in higher education — and how to access them.

The Educational Ecosystem is comprehensive, going beyond educators to include parents, nonprofit organizations, business leaders and faith-based organizations. Working together, we are addressing the barriers that impede academic achievement such as poverty, lack of access, and disjointed resources.

Unfortunately, many Pinellas County families have no idea how to get on the path. They don't know what is available, where to get it or how to pay for it. This is especially true in several pockets of Pinellas County identified as at-risk communities. Our neighbors in these areas live where poverty rates are as high as 51 percent and unemployment, or low-wage employment, is rampant. Studies have shown that 30 percent of high school students from these communities do not graduate compared to 19 percent countywide. Kindergarten students are less prepared and only 63 percent of third graders perform at grade level. We must do more to help.

At the same time, we know that locally and across our state a large number of men, 25 to 31 years old, are long-term unemployed and have given up the chance for successful careers. This has happened despite unemployment figures that are the lowest in recent times. In Florida last year, the portion of men who no longer are seeking employment reached 11.3 percent (or 430,000 men). For some, the workforce has changed and left them behind. They have skills that no longer are needed. Others were left behind when opportunities for success seemed to disappear from their lives. It is important that we reach these men with direction and opportunities that will allow them to achieve personal success.

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By working together in a seamless educational system instead of competing for enrollment, we all will thrive – including our business community, which will undoubtedly benefit from a well-trained and competently educated talent pool. Our workforce partners have said many times there are jobs that go unfilled because the talent is not there. It is imperative we adjust our training plans to meet these needs.

Over the next several months, we will strengthen the alignment between SPC, USFSP, PTC, Pinellas County Schools and others, building on existing programs and agreements. Building on- and off-ramps for students to elevate their career aspirations is critical. Together, we will work with our business and industry partners to solve the talent shortage and improve economic mobility for our residents.

We know not everyone who graduates from high school will be immediately ready for college. Others may drop out for one reason or another. Life happens. And the right time to come back to school might come years later. Not all careers require a college degree, but all require some sort of credential. Our pathway to success will include a re-entry opportunity with counseling and academic and financial assistance.

The Educational Ecosystem is in its initial formation stages and we foresee many additional opportunities for cooperation in the near future. By working together, our business partners can thrive, our neighborhoods will be invigorated and most importantly, our residents will achieve the success they so rightly deserve. We envision an even brighter future for Pinellas County and are working tirelessly to light the way toward that end.

Tonjua Williams is president of St. Petersburg College.