Clear Vision for 21st Century Schools

Guest Correspondence

Mark Pritchett is senior vice president for community investment at Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

We love our superlatives in Sarasota County. Best beach. Best place to retire. Best foundations (just kidding—sort of).

We’re also proud of our high-ranked, highly regarded schools. And as a community, we’ve consistently invested in making them even better—which takes some vision for the “best place to retire.”

Our STEMsmart initiative is just one example. Over five years ago, Gulf Coast Community Foundation and Sarasota County Schools together identified science and math as areas in which we had substantial room to improve. Since then, we’ve invested over $9 million to transform the way teachers teach and students learn science and math in our local middle and high schools. (And that’s not just Gulf Coast funding; it includes contributions from the school district, individual philanthropists, business partners and more. 

STEMsmart has demonstrated success through 100 percent proficiency in the bellwether subject of algebra as well as geometry; increased enrollment in Advanced Placement courses; and greater interest in careers in science and technology—fields where our students will find the fastest-growing, highest-paying jobs. Anecdotally, teachers have said they could never go back to teaching like they did in traditional classrooms. That’s transformation.

But it’s not time to coast. Never is. Last summer, the Charles and Margery Barancik Foundation funded expansion of our STEMsmart classroom technology to all language arts and social studies classrooms at Sarasota Middle School. This single-school pilot tested whether the technology and instructional methods could be transferred to these other subjects. Evaluation results said “yes,” with more than 80 percent of students reporting they were more engaged and found learning more enjoyable last year. 

Armed with that evidence, Gulf Coast and the Barancik Foundation have committed to outfitting the rest of the district’s middle-school language arts and social studies classes with the same technology over the next three years. Dr. Kevin Baird, a national expert in college and career readiness, already ranks Sarasota County’s middle schools in the top 10 nationally for district-wide technology implementation. Expanding the 21st-century technology we’ve implemented in math and science to the rest of the classrooms across our middle schools would make Sarasota County “a model site for all schools in the United States,” Dr. Baird told us, with “no comparable implementation” anywhere in the country.

The success of our schools and our students so far is something to celebrate. The distinction of being the most technologically advanced school district in the nation is a superlative worth striving for. But ultimately, the results we aim for speak best for themselves: As one eighth-grader in a Sarasota Middle School language arts class said last school year, the difference between learning in his old and learning in his new classrooms “is like the difference between looking through a wall and looking through a window.”

Mark Pritchett is senior vice president for community investment at Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

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