Education

Alta Vista Elementary School

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While Alta Vista Elementary is classified as a Title 1 school — meaning that the US Department of Education provides supplemental funding to meets the needs of at-risk and low-income students — principal Barbara Shirley believes that there’s no reason to deliver anything but a first-class education there. Her efforts to make this belief a reality earned her SCOPE’s (Sarasota Country Openly Plans for Excellence) Boundary Crossover Award this past September, and in 2014, she was honored as the Florida Principal of the Year by the Florida Department of Education.

When she became the principal of Alta Vista in 2007, Shirley knew she had her work cut out for her. More than 90% of her students were eligible for free or reduced lunches, and many of their family members were high school dropouts and/or had a number of stops and starts with their careers. “Some of them had limited skill sets,” she explains, “which meant that they couldn’t realistically progress very far in their careers.” So Shirley talked to them with the goal of trying to find ways to create connections with the whole family, not just with Alta Vista students.

It didn’t take long to recognize that “our parents truly wanted to learn,” explains Shirley. “They wanted to find ways that they could pursue different careers and vocations where they’d be able to improve themselves and be better providers for their families.”

Enter the Eagle Academy, which started in the summer of 2013. With support from special donors Mary Kay and Joe Henson, the Community Foundation of Sarasota, and her staff, Barbara has created a summer learning academy where all kindergarten through third grade students participate in this seven-week program that helps them be better prepared for school and reduce the amount of summer learning loss. But it wasn’t just for kids. There was the Parent University too — an opportunity for the rest of the family to take courses on such things as core life skills, self-help, financial literacy, vocational skills, GED, technology, parenting, and even lessons in how to help their school-age children with homework. By providing courses for the entire family on campus, the program built stronger, more trusting relationships with the families through the positive experiences they had at school. It gave them a deeper appreciation for the importance of education in the lives of their children and allowed them to be better role models who supported education in both their words and their actions.

Shirley explains that one of the most exciting parts of Parent University was their partnership with the American Red Cross and the Community Foundation of Sarasota that allowed Alta Vista to run their first certified nursing assistant (CNA) class. Fourteen single moms — all Alta Vista parents — took classes for seven straight weeks. These dedicated moms would drop their children off in classrooms at the start of the day, then for four days a week, they would head off to another building on campus for a 9-4 schedule of their own nursing classes. Recently, Suncoast Technical College formed a partnership with Alta Vista and created an adult learning center in one of Alta Vista’s buildings, so CNAs could work with hospital beds and medical equipment as a part of their educational program. “You’d see them on campus, talking about tests, sharing how they did, forming study buddy groups,” says Shirley proudly about these single moms. “The amount of camaraderie was incredible. And in the summer of 2013, we graduated all 14 moms with their CNA certifications.”

Since then, they’ve graduated more than 60 people from the CNA program. Plus, they’ve begun to offer classes for adults throughout the year versus just during the summer. The range of available courses now, too, has expanded: cosmetologist, child development associate, private security officer, forklift operator and much more. Shirley says, “We’re always looking to add new options based on the interest of parents along with an assessment of what needs the community and economy has.”
It’s no surprise that this two-generation program has become both a statewide and nationwide hit. Providing education and job-training opportunities for both children and parents is a pathway to future success for everyone involved. Ultimately, it’s creating an intergenerational cycle of opportunity that will have significant impact on our entire community.

Jackie Ekstrom, a social worker for the Community Foundation of Sarasota County who has worked closely with Alta Vista, says that what she’s most pleased with is how they all took an idea and thoughtfully grew it in ways that could make a difference. “Sometimes it’s hard to have an entrepreneurial public/private group like this come together,” she admits, “but we’re definitely seeing progress that we can measure. We’re moving in a direction that is very positive and very intentional.” Shirley can’t say enough about how important the Community Foundation’s help has been in making this program a success. “They’re wonderful partners.”

Yet Alta Vista is more than just that one program. For instance, there’s the Eagles Nest Volunteer Center. On a weekly basis, it brings together community and parent volunteers to mentor and tutor at-risk children. “Some local businesses even give employees time off to participate,” explains Shirley. Throughout the academic year, nearly 100 volunteers work with almost 200 students in core subjects such as math, reading and writing. There’s also the “Caught You Being Good” Program, the Renaissance Awards Program (which recognizes student performance and school spirit), as well as the Eagle Eye Newsroom, which is produced daily by students and broadcast into all classrooms each morning.
It’s no wonder that with Barbara Shirley at the helm, Alta Vista has earned an A grade from the Florida Legislative School Recognition Program for 12 years and has been named as one of the top 15 Title 1 schools in Florida for exceeding expectations. “I’m humbled by how much they’ve embraced our school,” says Shirley. “Sarasota is amazing. Every day, there’s someone calling me or coming by the school to find out ways to support us and help us reach the goals we need to reach with our families.” With the help of her staff and teachers — “terrific, dedicated people!” Shirley repeats — the students and families of Alta Vista have a promising future ahead.

For more information on Alta Vista Elementary or the Two Generations, One Future program, please visit www.sarasotacountryschools.net/schools/altavista.com or call 941.361.6400.

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