Putting Education Reform To The Test

Why Foundations Must Help Florida Schools Make The Digital Switch

John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

Chris Pfahler, who manages the STEMsmart program for the Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

Sarasota County school could not have renovated 50 classrooms and stuffed them with high-tech learning tools without the help of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

The foundation saw a need to improve science, technology, math and engineering education, or STEM, in Sarasota and Charlotte counties, says Chris Pfahler, who manages the foundation’s STEMsmart program. So the Gulf Coast Community Foundation came up with a plan which will eventually renovate and equip 142 middle school classrooms.

The non-profit helped raise money for the $2.2 million project, which included securing pledges for equipment from Texas Instruments and Hewlett-Packard. They also guided the project through its conception, seeking out design tips from teachers and students.

School districts around the state may need to consider a similar transformation to their classrooms. That’s because lawmakers have required Florida school districts to deliver have of all instruction digitally by the fall of 2015.

It’s a big task and many school districts have made little progress.

“We had a guy from the state who talked about the technology issues,” Pfahler says of a recent meeting. “He said: ‘A third of the money is going to come from the state. A third of the money is going to come from the school district. And a third of the money is going to come from…wherever.’”

Pfahler thinks Florida foundations, such as her employer, can help fill the gap.

Foundations usually have good contacts in the business community, she says. And foundations can help explain why new Common Core standards, digital instruction requirements and other changes coming to state schools will mean better-trained workers for those businesses.

Those businesses can pay for some of the needed infrastructure and equipment.

“I think the foundations are going to have to step up to determine what that looks like and how they’re going to help,” she says. “The school district could never have fronted all of this, and that’s where we came in, had the vision, had the partnership,” she says. “And now that we have the infrastructure in place it will continue on…it’s a huge upfront cost.”

State Board of Education members also believe that schools need to lean on business during the switch to Common Core and digital instruction. Board member Kathleen Shanahan says information technology firms, for instance, have lots of experience with large projects expanding Internet bandwidth and computer network capacity.

Pfahler and others also say that the business community need to educate the public about the coming changes. If schools districts aren’t ready, she says, their students could be at a disadvantage to those in district which are better-prepared.

It’s going to be an entire shift and people don’t know it’s coming,” Pfahler says. “One of the principals I have in Charlotte County calls it a tsunami.”

That may include offering public relations support to embattled school districts if school and district grades decline because of the new standards and testing are more difficult.


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