Progessive philosophy, collaboration with local stakeholders makes the district a model for others.
In my last column, I talked a little bit about Leadership Flagler, a really great program sponsored by the Flagler Chamber of Commerce that pulls together professionals from across the county with the goal of discovering how they each individually, and together as a group, can help make Flagler a better place to live and work.
Now in its 24th cohort, the initiative helps foster understanding of different sectors of the community -- from business to education, social services to law enforcement -- and how those groups intersect. Just a month in, it's already been an eye-opener, even for those in my class who are natives of the area, to get a birds-eye view of what goes on behind the scenes in their own backyard.
For me -- a New York girl new to Northeast Florida -- it's been an invaluable experience, an amazing overview for a reporter still getting her feet under her in the Palm Coast region.
In a recent session, for example, our group toured the Flagler Schools and I left the day with some distinct impressions and observations:
- Financial challenges are an issue for a majority of families with children in the district: With 69% of students on the free or reduced lunch program, teachers worry not only about kids who show up to school with torn sneakers but also how those same kids are faring at home, outside of the school day, in getting basic needs met. Programs like the STUFF Bus, funded by the Flagler County Education Foundation, helps fill in some of the gaps, providing needed supplies and clothing to low-income students and families, but the problem is a very real one. Interestingly, the district has the sixth highest millage rate in the state for property taxes but is the 64th lowest funded district, setting up a cost differential between what the schools are subsidized for and what taxpayers actually pay toward the district budget annually.
- The district is considered a model for progressiveness, particularly in its use of technology: Every student in the Flagler Schools is issued a take-home device; in grades 4-6, it's an iPad, 7-12, a MacBook laptop in what is considered a 'one-to-one' digital classroom initiative that integrates technology into learning at a grade-appropriate level. Students in the aviation program at Buddy Taylor Middle School, for example, regularly teleconference with the Mars Society to learn about biospheres in the Southwest. The district also offers an iFlagler program, a virtual classroom option for students who may learn better that way.
- Flagler Schools' "Classroom-to-Careers" program is arming students with 21st century skills: Emphasizing the idea of choice in school programs, Flagler allows students and their families to choose from a variety of schools with individual flagship programs that allow them to explore and prepare for potential career paths. These include agriculture, aerospace, green technology, health sciences, logistics/manufacturing, marine sciences, and more. In deciding upon these fields, school administrators met with area municipal and business leaders to hone in on targeted industries with the hopes of creating a pipeline of skills that might feed back into the local economy or, in other words, create a pool of homegrown talent -- basically, graduates who might choose to continue to live and work in Flagler County.
- Local businesses and institutions see themselves as stakeholders and partners in the success of the Flagler Schools: Companies and higher-learning facilities across the region actively seek out ways to work with the district and its students to help ensure better outcomes in the community. Colleges and universities have become partners with the district, such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, which sponsors students for certified pilots' licenses, and Daytona State College, which offers a dual enrollment option for high school students. Other businesses, too, offer their expertise, such as Florida Hospital Flagler, which has created a medical lab at Rymfire Elementary School, and Aveo Engineering, which has set up a drone program in the schools.
- The role that the Flagler County Education Foundation plays in the schools is essential: Through marketing and fundraising, the education foundation helps fill in a lot of the blanks these days, supporting enrichment programs, initiatives and scholarships that go above and beyond what the district can provide, especially with increased school mandates and other budgetary constraints.