Christopher Bernier

Christopher Bernier

By Laura Cummings

 

The School District of Lee County welcomes a new superintendent this school year. Christopher Bernier, PhD, returned to the Sunshine State after a stint in Las Vegas as chief of staff for the nation’s fifth-largest school district. Before that, he spent 32 years with Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, where he started as a social studies teacher and worked his way up to associate superintendent.

Lee County is Florida’s ninth-largest school district, educating more than 90,000 students in grades K-12.

“Lee county has everything I want in a school district and community — engaged citizenry, dynamic student population and opportunities to take systems to the next level,” Bernier said.

According to a Lee County Schools statement, Bernier also has everything constituents indicated they wanted in their next superintendent:

  • A “student-centered” philosophy
  • Experience recruiting and retaining exceptional staff
  • Willingness to listen
  • A strong moral compass
  • Experience with effective management and planning practices for long-term financial health of the district
  • Ability to develop and maintain relationships with the business community
  • Leadership skills, knowledge and sensitivity required to lead a diverse student body

A top priority for Bernier is connecting with the community.

Estero High

Estero High

“I have embarked on an extensive listening campaign to better understand our stakeholders and what they expect from our school system,” he said. “Community engagement needs to be central as we move forward. From bettering relationships with the local legislative delegation to strategic community canvassing — we go further together.”

The school district has a memorandum of understanding with the Village of Estero, which means the two entities agree to work together on mutually beneficially opportunities. After collaborating on plans for a new K-8 school off Three Oaks Parkway, many Estero citizens were disappointed when the school district canceled its plans in favor of building projects elsewhere in the county.

Managing growth is a challenge, Bernier acknowledged. Among other recent and planned construction projects, the district is partnering with Florida Gulf Coast University to build the Innovation School, a K-8 school where education majors can learn to become teachers, and current teachers can come to learn new instructional techniques.

Above all, Bernier said he believes in “exceeding expectations.”

 

  1. What do you most enjoy about your chosen profession?

My why is always about students, in the transformative power of school systems to change both academic and life outcomes. I was inspired by the power of teaching growing up and have seen how even slight improvements to educational systems and structures can open up doors and pathways for children. 

 

  1. What is the greatest strength of the Lee County public school system?

Teachers, teachers and teachers — they have impressed me from day one. They are eager with a dedicated energy toward the classroom. They are our engine… We also have an engaged citizenry that cares for its schools and connects the importance of public education to the economic sustainability of Southwest Florida.

 

  1. How will you improve recruitment and retention of the best teachers?

I am doing all I can to work with Human Resources and Academic Services to make necessary improvements in our recruitment-compensation-retention practices. However, teachers need support beyond compensation. The classroom is where the most important work is done in our district. We must create systems of support that allow them to know they are valued.

 

  1. What are the biggest challenges facing the school system in the coming years?

Due to the demographic growth of Lee County, we need more staff at all levels. In addition, we continue our commitment to providing the best learning environment in terms of the building of new schools and necessary renovations… We also have a complex student assignment process that needs improvement. The enrollment system that has been in place for more than 15 years has created challenges across the district in both customer service and transportation. We must do better while balancing student enrollment and choice.

 

  1. How can the school district collaborate with local businesses and community groups to enhance education for our students?

My philosophy is that we can never do enough when it comes to collaboration with our community — be it business or otherwise. We will only be as successful as our partnerships with the community allow us to be. Lee County has impressive career academies at many of its schools and can go further with business and community support. In similar large school districts, there is a robust connection with organizations to assist schools with before/after care and summer programming. Our school district and community must work in partnership if we are to fulfill our mission of ensuring that each student achieves his or her highest personal potential.

 

  1. What does the school district plan to do with the land it owns in Estero?

As Lee County continues to grow, the land we own will be an important asset. We can hold onto the parcel on Three Oaks Parkway for future construction of a new school, we can sell it for revenue to buy more land, or we can trade it for another piece of land to build a school on. Only time will tell. 

  1. What is the best advice you’ve ever been given?

Be yourself and tell the truth. If you live authentically and tell the truth, you never have to think about who you are or what you said.

 

Estero High School

Estero High School

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