This op-ed was authored by Florida State Sen. Ben Albritton who represents District 20, which consists of DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, and Okeechobee counties and parts of Charlotte, Lee, Polk counties.
July 25, 2022 Updated 11:27 A.M. ET
DISTRICT 26 (FLV) – Much of the debate around K-12 education involves “what not to do.” We must not advance political agendas in the classroom. We must not cut parents out of important decisions involving their children. We must not limit opportunities for excellence and prosperity.
To find many shining examples of “what we should do” to strengthen K-12 education in Florida just takes one visit to Sallie Jones Elementary in Punta Gorda. Charlotte County Superintendent Stephen Dioniso and Charlotte County School Board Member Kim Amontree invited me there for a visit recently.
The school year at Sallie Jones Elementary is already well underway, and I am amazed by the quality of learning a visitor can witness in the classroom and the dedication to excellence a visitor can observe among the staff and leadership. I am excited to see who the students of Sallie Jones grow up to become and what they accomplish.
Sallie Jones Elementary is a public school, where 76% of students are economically disadvantaged. Every student receives free school breakfast and lunch because the community’s low socio-economic statistics qualify for this federally funded program. Yet, these students are receiving an education that will enable them to pursue any career they choose in their future.
My visit in July started with a tour led by two student ambassadors: Elliana and Maddox. The pair just graduated fifth grade and has started middle school. Elliana has dreams to be a doctor, and Maddox has a love of marine biology. I encouraged him to look into positions with the Florida Fishing and Wildlife Commission, where he could work to protect and conserve our precious marine resources.
Elliana and Maddox led me through the school and highlighted many programs from which they benefited as students at Sallie Jones. They pointed to artwork and exhibits in each hallway. They were unscripted and supremely genuine in their praise of the experiences they had while students at the school.
Any visitor would be quick to assume these two students are unique among the student population. They are leaders who are talented, skilled and practiced at what they do. But being a leader at Sallie Jones is not the exception; it’s the rule. In fact, the school practices the “Leader in Me” strategic approach, which instills the seven habits of leadership in every student. All students are given a leadership role at school so they can practice their seven habits. While some like Elliana and Maddox are ambassadors, others serve on the safety patrol, deliver daily broadcast announcements or support other grade levels through the Buddy Class program.
Leadership is not the only priority at Sallie Jones. Reading is, too. The elementary school adopted and implemented a reading recovery program to help all first-grade students gain the literacy skills they need to succeed at future education levels. The program identifies students in first grade who are struggling to meet the standards of a first grade reading level. Those students receive an additional 30 minutes per day of tutoring from their teacher. From this program, the school has achieved a 75% success rate among participating students.
Parents are a big part of a student’s success in the classroom. That is not lost on the leadership at Sallie Jones Elementary. Through the school’s Watchdog Program, dads and father figures are encouraged to spend time at school. One volunteer each day is invited to supervise the parent drop-off line, read in the classroom or monitor activity in the cafeteria. The parent or guardian gets to witness activity at school, and students benefit from the role model’s presence during the day. Parents and family members also spend time in the Family Resource Reading Center at Sallie Jones Elementary. Through monthly, themed events, parents and siblings witness the techniques teachers are using in the classroom and learn tactics they can practice at home to advance their child’s education.
One of the most compelling activities I witnessed during my visit to Sallie Jones was in the gifted classroom. The teacher applied the Socratic method to an exercise, forcing students to use critical thinking. Students evaluated images of a leader versus a boss. The students determined that the leader was guiding while working alongside his or her team. In contrast, they decided boss was giving orders from a distance while overseeing the actions of his team. It was amazing to see and hear the students’ observations of a leader versus a boss. Their conclusions were far more sophisticated and articulate than any I had come to at that age. It was incredible.
The students at Sallie Jones Elementary have a bright future ahead of them. That’s made possible by the teachers, by Principal Jennie Hoke, by Assistant Principal Keli Sare, by Superintendent Dioniso, by Amontree and her colleagues on the school board, by parents in Charlotte County and with the support of many, many more members of the community who recognize the importance and value of a strong education.
I know there are countless other successes beyond Sallie Jones Elementary. They exist in Charlotte County, throughout Florida and across the United States. As a State Senator, it’s my job to recognize achievements like these and replicate them so that other students may benefit from these successful programs.
Florida will be in good hands with future leaders, engineers, teachers, nurses and more who got off to a strong start at schools like Sallie Jones Elementary.
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