If Superintendent of Schools Heidi Maier is looking for an inspirational message to deliver when Marion County’s 43,000 public school students return to their classrooms on Monday, she might consider playing a clip from last week’s County Commission meeting. It’s short … and sweet.
The clip features Kevin Sheilley, president and CEO of the Ocala/Marion County Chamber & Economic Partnership, or CEP, talking about a new economic development prospect that is considering building a million-square-foot facility here that would provide, in his words, “hundreds and hundreds of jobs” and $300 million in investment.
Meanwhile, Maier has a big challenge as the new year begins — to reverse years of decline in academic performance in Marion County Public Schools. She is rolling out a new reading initiative, one that calls for parental and community participation. She has moved principals, beefed up reading programs and promised she can and will fix what ails our schools and students academically.
And while much of her emphasis will be aimed at the lower grades, where Marion County performed the worst on last year’s state assessment tests, there is another segment of the student population that should be heartened and, hopefully, inspired to hear Sheilley’s words.
For years local business leaders bemoaned the lack of skilled workers coming out of our schools. And for years, students and parents lamented the lack of decent jobs available for those students who chose to forego college, the so-called “middle majority.” Now, thanks to a booming economy and Marion County’s strategic location as a logistics hub, Sheilley told the commissioners that not only is our community being courted by a Fortune 200 company, but “business attraction activity is probably stronger now than any time since I’ve been here.”
What does this mean to Maier and our children? It means that there are jobs when they graduate — if they are prepared.
Because Maier and her administration have listened to the business community and undertaken a major and ongoing expansion of vocational programs in our schools, today’s students have greater opportunity to get training, certification and be ready to work upon graduation more than any time in memory.
The most pressing task at hand, of course, is improving student performance. Having 11 schools on the state’s Bottom 300 list is a terrible look for a community that is one of the hottest economic development markets in the Southeast. At the same time, however, what the quick success of the vocational programs tells us is that we, as a school system and a community, can do meaningful things for our children’s future when we join together and work together in earnest.
Hope is a wonderful thing for a young person. Having hope of getting a good job upon graduation from high school is especially wonderful. What Sheilley’s talk told us is that Marion County is growing, and with the completion of the new I-75 Commerce Park near Marion Oaks and the steady stream of inquiries from potential employers, the economic future looks brighter every day.
Raising the Marion County standard of living, we frequently note in this column, would do as much or more to uplift our schools’ academic performance as any reading program. Ideally, we need a successful economic development program and a successful academic improvement program that feed off each other.