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|Recently the Punta Gorda Metropolitan Statistical Area (which includes all of Charlotte County) was recognized from the “Business Insider” as the number three location of the top 20 national MSA’s where people are relocating. The article was expanded on by Charlotte County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director, Julie Mathis, who said, “We know that people are moving here to enjoy an affordable waterfront community, educational opportunities for all ages, downtown Punta Gorda, boating, golf, biking and so much more.“ As a Realtor, oftentimes we are the first point of contact by those considering a move to our area. Aside from the obvious questions regarding the local activities and points of interest previously mentioned, the question on everyone’s mind is “What are the area schools and medical services like in the area?” Having a son, family members and watching their fellow classmates graduate from our school system with honors, we’ve seen them go on to pursue careers in medicine, finance and as mechanical engineers with top national corporations. We knew how good our school system was in preparing our children for higher forms of education and beyond. However, I wanted to get a better insight as to what it takes to become an “A” level school and the programs being created to address the careers of the future, and who better to provide that insight than Steve Dionisio, Superintendent of the Charlotte County Public School system.
Growing up in the area and going through the school system himself, Steve returned after college with a passion for teaching and preparing children for their future endeavors. Now in his 28th year with the Charlotte County School system, he looks fondly at the over 12 years he served as principal of Port Charlotte High School, and for the past 5 as Superintendent overseeing 15,500 students and 2,400 employees that include up to 100 new teachers per year. While this would be a hard task to manage for any Fortune 500 CEO, one look at the artwork adorning the walls of Steve’s office and you can tell it is all about the children.
Steve makes a point of visiting every classroom of the 22 schools in the district and speaking to each of the 1,300-1,400 teachers throughout the school year. “I watch and see how kids grow and learn quickly through their mistakes. I see how teachers also grow and adapt to the daily challenges in running a successful classroom.” Steve added, “I don’t go in with a speech, I speak from the heart and hear what they have to say.” It is that kind of concern and passion the district was looking for that resulted in awarding Steve the Supervisor’s position without the required interview. He has set a very high bar in that he not only wants the Charlotte County Public School system to attain and maintain an “A” level status in every one of the schools within the district, he wants CCPS to become the number one school system in the state. Currently, the graduation rate of 88% is the highest it has ever been in Charlotte County Public School history , and would be higher if counting those children who attend the Academy or who have a delayed graduation were included in those graduation figures.
Recently, I responded to a letter sent to the Editor of our local newspaper written by an individual who was critical of the school system and its teachers. With no facts to back up his assertions, I replied by citing the academic and athletic achievements our students have attained and the careers they had already pursued. However, one key point I made in the letter was how different the educational environment is today than it was when I was growing up. While we had our share of schoolyard fights and differences with our classmates, but today school security has become just as important as the academic curriculum. “Safety,” as Steve points out, “Is the biggest challenge we face today. When the state mandated increased security for schools establishing minimums for staffing of “School Resource Officers,” (SRO’s) after the Parkland school shootings, Charlotte County Public Schools already had those minimums in place and increased the security staffing and presence even further.” He continued by saying, “Safety of the child and staff is my first concern. We conduct active assailant drills and teach the children where the safest area is in the classroom and how to barricade a door.” Steve adds, “It is heartbreaking that a kindergarten child has to learn how to survive.” With updated phone systems in place, and the ability to lock down the campus instantly, every parent and student can be updated during a crisis in a matter of minutes.
Since many of the previous school and mass shootings have been traced back to a shooter who had a history of mental health issues, or has come from a background of heightened emotional distress, Steve said, “This community talks to each other. The school system, the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Department, Police Chief and Charlotte County Mental Health department all move in the same direction with a game plan in place.” Together, they work in concert to provide a model for a safe learning environment. W hen I was attending school, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, the course curriculum was based around the three basic components, reading, writing and arithmetic. Our exposure to the national and international events didn’t seem to be as polarizing as they are today. Today we are hearing where many of the educators, particularly those in the higher learning levels (college), are integrating their personal opinions into the course curriculum. Steve’s replied by saying, “We want our students to have a voice, as long as they aren’t breaking any of the school system’s rules. Kids today are watching and learning how those in position react to scenarios presented to them and respond accordingly.” He went on to say, “We didn’t have social media when we grew up, (Steve still doesn’t have facebook and social media accounts), and unfortunately, much of what is being posted on these sites is not based on fact. Unlike having a direct dialogue, with social media you can post without having to defend your position.”
For years I’ve often felt our county didn’t offer many career opportunities outside of medical, law, real estate and the building trades. I have thought for years we were training our young bright minds to benefit someone else’s city or state. Steve perhaps put it much more succinctly when he said, “We are exporting our kids,” and to address this need our technical school, together with new programs being created will give our kids an instant opportunity for employment in cutting edge industries. Working in concert with Charlotte County and the Charlotte County Economic Development team, (that also has representation on the school board), new career opportunities are being created in airframe and airline mechanics, solar energy, HVAC, small engine repair, technology, dental and nursing . These programs have all been created, at great cost, so graduating students can immediately feed the growth of specific industries. In fact, just in the nursing program alone 98% of those graduating find almost immediate employment. With the new Sunseeker Resort due to be completed in late 2020, new programs with be designed with the goal of feeding a diversity of job opportunities that will be created by this 450+ million dollar resort development.
In closing, Steve shared with me that we have many talented individuals that sit on the school board who bring a wealth of experience, energy and tireless support with the goal of making the Charlotte County School System a model educational environment however, it takes even more support from our community. Steve noted very soon the entire school system will gain its “A” rating, but that it takes mentors and positive role models and mentoring programs to augment what the school provides. Steve stressed the importance of going to school events, “even if you don’t have children in school.” “Support their sports, school plays and other events, and be supportive of the school system even when there are things we could do better, as that is what makes our school system better.”
This year the Charlotte School System will once again graduate approximately 2,000 young bright minds and from the personal insight I gained from my conversation with this very caring and gifted Superintendent, I get the impression there are few things in life that bring him more joy than watching the sense of accomplishment on the faces of these students as they walk across their graduation stage knowing they are well prepared for the next chapter in their lives and equipped with the ability to make an impact in their career path of their choice.