The Alachua County Public Schools Board, Alachua County Commission and Gainesville City Commission held a joint meeting on Wednesday, tackling a wide-ranging agenda focusing on equity and matters such as youth literacy and programming, digital access, transportation and school rezoning.
“A little over three years ago was the last joint meeting,” County Commission Chair Ken Cornell said. “This is a meeting that should excite us all and make us come together.”
Seventeen elected officials participated, with the county commissions present in the County Administration Building, and the city commissioners and school board members taking part virtually because of ongoing social distancing requirements.
The first agenda item on the agenda: Ensuring that the county’s children can read at grade-level by the end of third grade. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. children cannot, according to the Lectio Institute, which is working with school districts, states and philanthropists on the problem.
“We have children who have never even been to the ocean before, and yet they’re trying to read about things that would happen in the ocean,” County Commission Vice Chair Marihelen Wheeler said. “So, I’m just saying, if we could maybe include in those kinds of things some experiences, too. Not only for the children, but for their families, because not only have those children not been to the ocean, their parents haven’t either.”
Another literacy program discussed was the Summer Adventures in Literacy (SAIL) program, a four-week initiative offered by the University of Florida College of Education’s Literacy Institute. SAIL aims to help elementary school students make significant gains in reading achievement.
“It is a literacy program that is meant to teach literacy skills, but also to build background knowledge and life experiences in students,” said Tina Certain, vice chair of the school board. “So that when they read a passage and books, they can connect what they’re reading with their life experiences.”
Colin Murphy, executive director of the Children’s Trust of Alachua County, offered a presentation on youth programming on and what it takes for children to thrive in their environment.
Murphy said they not only need their academic learning, but also more attention focused on the social and emotional pieces that help prepare them to interact with the world and their peers – and how to have the self-confidence and emotional skills needed for success in life.
“I am not a big believer that you’re going to really improve reading scores in after school programs,” Murphy said. “I think those are for the social, emotional skills and safety. The gap in opportunities in equity for children is in the summertime.”
The elected officials and presenters also discussed how equity in digital access has become even more important when the world is dealing with a pandemic.
With schools everywhere having to teach students remotely, too many students were hurt by not having sufficient internet connectivity around the clock and especially during school hours.
School Board Member Gunnar Paulson proposed that the county and city commissions should work to provide greater e-learning access in after-school programs.
“Some of our parents not only don’t have access, but don’t know how to use it,” Paulson said.
That led to the discussion of providing greater broadband access for the public, which some city commissioners have wanted for some time.
“The direct broadband access to every home – where people live, work and study most of the time – is paramount,” Mayor Lauren Poe said.
A motion to have affordable broadband across the county passed unanimously.
Transportation was another issue. The elected officials discussed a new route that was costly.
Chris Dawson, the transportation planning manager at Alachua county, talked about developing the potential for an additional route that would serve Elementary School I. This new elementary school is expected to be completed in August of 2021.
“It’s a fairly long way from where we currently provided any service through existing agreements with RTS, and it’s in an area of relatively low-density residential use,” Dawson said. “It’s approximately four miles from the SWAG (The Southwest Advocacy Group) Area, which is a pretty long run and that’s why there’s some higher costs associated with the fixed routes to go there.”
Elementary School I and Meadowbrook Elementary School would benefit from the service. However, the bus route would be $460,000, the elected officials debated between the expensive cost and the importance of families having transportation.
They have not yet come to an understanding, but are searching for better solutions.
Schools Superintendent Carlee Simon also discussed the rezoning of the county’s public schools.
The issue is unbalanced enrollment. Buchholz and Gainesville High Schools, both of which located near the city’s west side, are over capacity. So are nearby middle schools, Simon said.
“Our schools run efficiently when it’s at capacity,” the superintendent said.
There was also discussion of needing more diverse populations and the problem of racial inequity that needs to be solved.
The goal is to reprogram the schools and improve them.
At the end of the presentation, Simon proposed a community engagement campaign involving listening sessions and public surveys.
“We get more out of it when we work together,” she said.