Local employers often complain about the lack of skilled workers and look to our schools to find solutions. We assembled some top educators in Manatee and Sarasota counties in a virtual roundtable to ask them about the state of education in our region. Our panel includes Dr. Roger Dearing, Manatee County Schools superintendent; Dr. Gordon Michalson, president of New College of Florida; Dr. Gary Norris, Sarasota County Schools superintendent; Dr. Sarah Pappas, president of Manatee Community College; Dr. Laurey Stryker, CEO of University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee; and Dr. Larry Thompson, president of Ringling School of Art and Design. Here are some edited comments from their e-mail discussion.

Florida ranks near the bottom in national surveys of graduation rates and per capita funding of public education. What's wrong with our system?

Dr. Gordon Michalson: Large class size, low teacher salaries, the difficulties in recruiting and retaining the best possible teachers, and the frequent reliance on portables. The low high school graduation rate should be of great concern, and it's even lower for certain minority populations.

Dr. Sarah Pappas: Your first statement is incorrect as it pertains to Florida's community colleges. Our community college system has the highest graduation rate in the Southern Region Educational Board, and MCC is the highest in the state.

Dr. Laurey Stryker: We suffer from the state's reputation, but locally, we overcome much of the criticism.

Dr. Gary Norris: The additional operating dollars from the March 2000 referendum have allowed Sarasota County to maintain a first-rate school system that is not fully dependent upon state funds, which

have not kept up with inflation or growth in student population. Funds are also being siphoned from the public schools by way of vouchers to private schools and the expansion of charter schools, and [the increasing numbers of non-English-speaking students] require additional support. And instead of accepting the old bell curve approach, schools are expected to have each child reach the proficient or "B" level, hence the phrase " leaving no child behind." This was necessary because almost no low-skilled jobs remain in our economy. Nevertheless, it will require Herculean effort on the part of educators to move all children to a proficient level.

How would you characterize the quality of secondary education in Sarasota/Manatee?

Stryker: Far better than most districts in Florida, but still lagging behind many parts of the nation.

Pappas: In a statewide comparison, our school systems are both in the top 10 out of 67 Florida school systems. However, Florida is 44th out of the 50 states when measuring "chance for college by age 19."

Thompson: We have been very impressed with the quality of art education in the high schools in this area as reflected in the quality of their portfolios.

Norris: Sarasota County public schools have a well-deserved reputation for providing an excellent education for college-bound students but are struggling with meeting individual student needs in large, comprehensive high schools. In addition, the School Board realizes the need to strengthen the vocational/technical areas.

A recent study concluded that Manatee and Sarasota counties may see a shortfall of 15,000 workers by the end of the decade and recommended that the two counties attract and produce "knowledge-based" jobs. Are you training students for such jobs?

Stryker: USF is a major player. But we are out of room on our campus and need to expand our facilities, programs and faculty to accommodate our growth.

Pappas: We respond to local requests in starting new career programs, such as the new information technology security program and the three-year-old dental hygiene program. The job placement rate of our graduates with A.S. and A.A.S. degrees is 98 percent. MCC also contributes to workforce training through our Corporate and Community Development division.

Michalson: What I call the "practical impracticality" of a liberal arts education translates into aptitudes and skills that prepare students for multiple career opportunities and, more importantly, the inevitable career changes people will face in the 21st century. Keep in mind the perennially high percentage of leaders of "Fortune 500" companies who are products of small liberal arts and sciences institutions.

Thompson: Our problem is there are not very many knowledge-based visual arts jobs in this area. Most of our graduates leave this area to be employed.

Dearing: We are on track for a new facility for Manatee Technical Institute whose mission is to exceed the demands of the local workforce. We offer great career and technical education programs in our middle and high schools. In addition, high school students can dual enroll at MTI at no cost.

Norris: Given the demands of the global economy, a basic skills education is no longer sufficient. Sarasota County has emphasized the integration of critical thinking skills and technology and has funded a technology teacher for every school and a three-to-one ratio of computers to students. In addition, hands-on science labs will be built in every elementary school.

What trends do you see in funding, student demographics and program demand?

Stryker: We project more than 3,000 students this year, a 50-percent increase over the past three years.

Pappas: Government support will continue to decrease, and collaboration with employers will need to increase. Future programs will be more health and education and information technology. Demand for more online courses will increase. We are seeing more full-time, younger, Hispanic students at MCC.

Michalson: If the recent Scripps initiative is a harbinger, we may well see additional degree programs in biotechnology fields as well as in aging studies, gerontology and community mental health. Imagine what Florida will look like in the year 2050. Critical thinking and ethical awareness will be increasingly important, as advances in science and technology create ethical dilemmas.

Thompson: Ringling School serves primarily traditionally aged students (19 - 25), 50 percent from Florida; 50 percent from 46 states and 40 some foreign countries. We see more demand for visual communications majors-digital video, gaming, etc. I am not hopeful about educational funding for the future of Florida given the current tax base and constraints on the budget.

Dearing: The trend has been to fund alternatives to public education instead of funding public education. The McKay Scholarship takes $2.2 million from Manatee County schools. Another alternative, Corporate Income Tax scholarships, takes $600,000 from Manatee County Schools. Early graduation and Florida Virtual high school are poor substitutes for full-time attendance at a public high school.

What's been your biggest challenge in the last year?

Stryker: Getting legislative funding for enrollment growth and construction of the Crosley Campus Center.

Pappas: The state funding shortage. Because of MCC's growth and tight state funds, we actually were funded $518 less per student in 2003 than in 2000.

Michalson: Without question, completing the administrative separation from the University of South Florida. The difficulties USF Sarasota-Manatee is experiencing in realizing its relocation plan are affecting two institutions, not just one.

Thompson: Because we have such limited financial aid we lose some of the best students to schools like Rhode Island School of Design, Parsons and Pratt. And we're becoming land-locked at our current location while needing to build additional facilities as we grow.

Dearing: Unprecedented growth. We will have more than 40,000 students next year, and we are growing by more than 1,200 students per year.

How difficult is it to attract high-tech companies without a local research institution?

Stryker: We offer a full information systems program, masters in engineering and are starting an information technology program that links computer science with information systems. USF has a major technology transfer program fully available to the South Tampa Bay region.

Michalson: Very difficult. The technology developed by research institutions is the most powerful leverage available in attracting high-tech companies. Just as important is whether local leaders and the community are willing to support the kind of culture-varied music, late-night restaurants, cyber cafes-that supports high tech. Tolerance for a diversity of lifestyles is also a part of this bigger picture.

Norris: My personal experience tells me that high-tech companies, i.e., biotechnology, are equally concerned about employees who are reliable, have a strong work ethic and demonstrate skills in reading and mathematics.

We have New College, Ringling, USF and MCC in our two-county area. Could education become its own powerful economic sector?

Stryker: We already are one. Businesses and chambers recognize the asset and work with us to align our courses with their needs and to support us in the political arena.

Pappas: I think this area rightfully can claim to be "a college town" now. In MCC's nearly 50-year history, 27,000 people have graduated, and the vast majority stay here. They work in our hospitals, teach in our schools, run our offices, and design our Web sites.

Michalson: Tough to say, since Sarasota will always be a tourist destination and a destination for retirees, even if it develops more of the features of a college town.

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