A united ef­fort to help Pinel­las stu­dents suc­ceed

Tampa Bay Times - - Opinion - TON­JUA WIL­LIAMS Ton­jua Wil­liams is pres­i­dent of St. Peters­burg Col­lege.

The Amer­i­can Dream is based on op­por­tu­nity. We all de­serve a real­is­tic chance to achieve our goals, gain eco­nomic mo­bil­ity for our fam­i­lies and live a ful­fill­ing life. We know that ed­u­ca­tion plays a key role in any path­way to suc­cess and that in­cludes the suc­cess­ful com­ple­tion of tech­ni­cal/work­force cer­tifi­cates, ap­pren­tice­ships or col­lege de­grees. We be­lieve the jour­ney along the path should be clear and un­com­pli­cated. The re­sult? A good fit in a re­ward­ing ca­reer that brings per­sonal sat­is­fac­tion as well as a sustainable in­come. To get on the right path, aware­ness, ac­cess and achieve­ment are crit­i­cal com­po­nents that change lives.

St. Peters­burg Col­lege, the Pinel­las County School District, in­clud­ing Pinel­las Tech­ni­cal Col­lege, and the Univer­sity of South Florida St. Peters­burg have worked hard for years in our re­spec­tive ar­eas to of­fer quality ed­u­ca­tion op­tions to Pinel­las res­i­dents.

Now, how­ever, we must work to­gether to pro­vide a seam­less path for all, al­low­ing in­di­vid­u­als to cross be­tween schools and pro­grams with­out los­ing stride. To reach that goal, we have formed an Ed­u­ca­tional Ecosys­tem de­signed to en­sure that ev­ery­one, from all in­come lev­els, com­mu­ni­ties and back­grounds is fa­mil­iar with ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties — es­pe­cially op­por­tu­ni­ties in higher ed­u­ca­tion — and how to ac­cess them.

The Ed­u­ca­tional Ecosys­tem is com­pre­hen­sive, go­ing beyond ed­u­ca­tors to in­clude par­ents, non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions, busi­ness lead­ers and faith­based or­ga­ni­za­tions. Work­ing to­gether, we are ad­dress­ing the bar­ri­ers that im­pede aca­demic achieve­ment such as poverty, lack of ac­cess, and dis­jointed re­sources.

Un­for­tu­nately, many Pinel­las County fam­i­lies have no idea how to get on the path. They don’t know what is avail­able, where to get it or how to pay for it. This is es­pe­cially true in sev­eral pock­ets of Pinel­las County iden­ti­fied as at-risk com­mu­ni­ties. Our neigh­bors in th­ese ar­eas live where poverty rates are as high as 51 per­cent and un­em­ploy­ment, or low-wage em­ploy­ment, is ram­pant. Stud­ies have shown that 30 per­cent of high school stu­dents from th­ese com­mu­ni­ties do not grad­u­ate com­pared to 19 per­cent coun­ty­wide. Kinder­garten stu­dents are less pre­pared and only 63 per­cent of third graders per­form at grade level. We must do more to help.

At the same time, we know that lo­cally and across our state a large num­ber of men, 25 to 31 years old, are long-term un­em­ployed and have given up the chance for suc­cess­ful ca­reers. This has hap­pened de­spite un­em­ploy­ment fig­ures that are the low­est in re­cent times. In Florida last year, the por­tion of men who no longer are seek­ing em­ploy­ment reached 11.3 per­cent (or 430,000 men). For some, the work­force has changed and left them be­hind. They have skills that no longer are needed. Oth­ers were left be­hind when op­por­tu­ni­ties for suc­cess seemed to dis­ap­pear from their lives. It is im­por­tant that we reach th­ese men with di­rec­tion and op­por­tu­ni­ties that will al­low them to achieve per­sonal suc­cess.

By work­ing to­gether in a seam­less ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem in­stead of com­pet­ing for en­roll­ment, we all will thrive – in­clud­ing our busi­ness com­mu­nity, which will un­doubt­edly ben­e­fit from a well-trained and com­pe­tently ed­u­cated talent pool. Our work­force part­ners have said many times there are jobs that go un­filled be­cause the talent is not there. It is im­per­a­tive we ad­just our train­ing plans to meet th­ese needs.

Over the next sev­eral months, we will strengthen the align­ment be­tween SPC, USFSP, PTC, Pinel­las County Schools and oth­ers, build­ing on ex­ist­ing pro­grams and agree­ments. Build­ing on- and off-ramps for stu­dents to el­e­vate their ca­reer as­pi­ra­tions is crit­i­cal. To­gether, we will work with our busi­ness and in­dus­try part­ners to solve the talent short­age and im­prove eco­nomic mo­bil­ity for our res­i­dents.

We know not ev­ery­one who grad­u­ates from high school will be im­me­di­ately ready for col­lege. Oth­ers may drop out for one rea­son or an­other. Life hap­pens. And the right time to come back to school might come years later. Not all ca­reers re­quire a col­lege de­gree, but all re­quire some sort of cre­den­tial. Our path­way to suc­cess will in­clude a re-en­try op­por­tu­nity with coun­sel­ing and aca­demic and fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance.

The Ed­u­ca­tional Ecosys­tem is in its ini­tial for­ma­tion stages and we fore­see many ad­di­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties for co­op­er­a­tion in the near fu­ture. By work­ing to­gether, our busi­ness part­ners can thrive, our neigh­bor­hoods will be in­vig­o­rated and most im­por­tantly, our res­i­dents will achieve the suc­cess they so rightly de­serve. We en­vi­sion an even brighter fu­ture for Pinel­las County and are work­ing tire­lessly to light the way to­ward that end.

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