By D.K. Christi
What could happen if a city teamed up with its local school district to better education and opportunities for all of its residents? This question is just beginning to be answered by a first-of-its-kind agreement between the Village of Estero and the School District of Lee County.
The idea has been building momentum for more than a year and was made official via a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed in May 2018. This document represents a grassroots effort to raise the educational bar in Estero schools — the first such agreement between Lee County Schools and a municipality.
The champions behind this initiative have been Village Council member Nick Batos (Estero’s first mayor) and community advocate Jim Shields, a Grandezza resident who is active in the Estero Council of Community Leaders (ECCL). Drawing on their collective business experiences and acumen, they came to the table with concrete ideas and implementation plans, notes Lee County School Board member Chris Patricca, who represents Estero. She credits the persistence and enthusiasm of this unstoppable duo for advocating a unique partnership which may become a model for educational initiatives with other municipalities.
While Patricca has joined Batos and Shields to actively plot out the Estero Education Initiative, it wouldn’t be possible without the support of hundreds of businesses, entrepreneurs, parents and Estero residents who have stepped forward to lend their talents and funding. This massive, unified support network extends beyond the school community because quality of education affects everyone.
In fact, the initial motivation for Batos was more about economics than education. His passion for improving Estero’s schools was fueled when Hertz brought its international headquarters to town. He assumed transplanted executives would be purchasing homes in Estero, but largely, that did not turn out to be the case. Many Hertz employees and execs were bypassing Estero and moving their families to Naples. Word on the street was they thought Collier County schools were “better;” they were uneasy about Lee County’s school choice system because their children were not guaranteed a spot in a nearby school.
“My question was: Can we find a way to make our town, within a big school district, a small community that is more attractive?” Batos wondered. “The more attraction a community has for potential residents, the higher the real estate values and appeal for businesses to open, and the better resultant economy.”
Engagement in the educational system should be important for all members of a community, from retired citizens to board chairmen. Education is everyone’s business, says Batos. Why not strive for the best schools in the State of Florida?
“We have the community with the talent and drive to make it happen,” adds Patricca.
One of the first changes brought about by the Estero Educational Initiative was ensuring that Estero children can attend Estero schools. But the initiative encompasses much more than that. It provides for mentoring and tutoring opportunities, the development of career academies, job skill programs and internships, potential co-location of future educational and recreational facilities, shared financing of infrastructure projects, and the use of school facilities by Estero residents (when not in use by students).
A task force, formed to find, plan and implement these opportunities, includes representatives from the Village of Estero and the principals of Estero High School, Three Oaks Elementary, Pinewoods Elementary and Three Oaks Middle School.
A successful first initiative has been “2-5-8-Graduate” — a partnership with Junior Achievement of Southwest Florida, which was recently featured on ABC-7’s “Positively Local” segment showing Three Oaks Middle School students “getting a jump start on life as an adult, thanks to Junior Achievement and local community leaders.”
A growing force of Estero volunteers has stepped up to teach Junior Achievement curriculum to all Estero students in grades 2, 5, 8 and 11. Shields and the ECCL have led the massive volunteer recruitment effort, which has attracted retirees, working professionals and stay-at-home parents. More than 80 people have signed up to help, and more are welcomed.
During six-week sessions, students participate in weekly lessons in financial literacy, career readiness and entrepreneurship, explains Shields. These “real life” skills are not always taught in classrooms.
Estero resident Dave Nichols is among the many volunteers now engaged in teaching economics to elementary students. He recently donned a chef’s hat and apron for a lesson examining production costs of a fictional Sweet “O” Donuts bakery, which had students engaged in making paper donuts.
“When the time was up, we measured production as well as quality, and deducted the defects,” explains Nichols. “Of course, we enjoyed real donuts with the kids when the lesson was over!”
The instructional materials used by Nichols, Shields and other JA volunteer instructors has been funded in large part by an annual charity golf fundraiser at Grandezza, which Shields organizes. “Breaking Par at Grandezza” has garnered net proceeds exceeding $300,000 to support Junior Achievement of Southwest Florida.
Another community effort has been directed in support of the culinary program at Estero High School. Last month, Shadow Wood at the Brooks hosted the third annual “An Evening Under the Shadow Wood,” a fundraising gala which has helped to purchase state-of-the-art cooking equipment and to send culinary students to state-level competition.
Principals and teachers provide key input needed to direct the Estero Education Initiative’s efforts. They are the ones who know their school’s needs and are able to provide an ever evolving list of projects to tackle.
For example, Pinewoods had an issue with moldy sidewalks, which was cleaned up thanks to Grandezza Country Club’s maintenance staff. Other schools received excellent office furniture and heavy duty outdoor picnic tables from The Brooks Commons Club, which was changing its décor.
Other community efforts have funded field trip T-shirts, equipment for a robotics program and tutors and materials for a reading program. The Bonita Springs Estero Realtors have contributed over $4,000 to the Estero Education Initiative and recently hosted “Trivia and Tacos for Teachers,” a fundraising event which benefitted the classroom of Pinewoods Elementary Teacher Diane Arizmendi, as well as others.
“We are creating a sense of community with the schools as the collaborative focus,” says Patricca, thrilled at the positive momentum this program is gaining.
Community gates are swinging open to new friends and opportunities which engage talent and resources for everyone’s benefit — perhaps a model for other communities in the Lee County School District, each with their own unique collaboration needs.
Want to get involved? Visit the Estero Education Initiative page on the Village of Estero website at www.estero-fl.gov/education.