SRQ Magazine | In Conversation on Trends in Education, September 2022

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A child entering kindergarten in 2022 has spent half their life under the specter of Covid-19, lockdowns, “masks required” signs, social distancing, and all the other choices our society has made to manage the pandemic. It’s hard to overstate the long ripple effect of this experience on these kids. In Sarasota and Bradenton, we are fortunate to have incredible school directors who are tackling these challenges head-on. Of course, the pandemic may have temporarily overshadowed other concerns, but there are many other challenges that still loom large in the lives of our smallest and most vulnerable. Whether it’s worrying information about the effects of social media, the seemingly unavoidable intrusion of politics in all parts of our lives, the changing dynamics in pedagogic thinking, the growing awareness that kids’ professional futures are ever harder to predict, or any of the myriad of concerns that parents have today, our guests were able to answer SRQ’s questions with honesty and empathy.

We are fortunate to know that our future, in the form of our children, is in fantastic hands going forward. And at SRQ, we are glad to bring these and other important questions to the fore with our guests. In this edition of SRQ’s In-Conversation program, we engage local heads of schools with expertise and exposure ranging from early educations, though primary and secondary, and including degree-seekers. Our guests discuss how their institutions are adapting to help kids (and adults) improve themselves with solid education achievements, while also bearing in mind the mental well-being and personal sense of purpose that are necessary foundations for a rewarding life. We hope you enjoy the conversation, and are given the same feeling of hopeful optimism that we received, knowing the quality of professional that are working to make our kids futures brighter.



ABOUT THE PARTICIPANTS MARIA EVA CHAFFIN , FOUNDER AND DIRECTOR, SEEDS OF LIFE MONTESSORI Maria Eva Chaffin is the founder, owner, and director of Seeds of Life Montessori Academy, an inclusive school serving children from 18 months to 12 years old. Originally from Venezuela, she holds two master’s degrees in education and is currently completing her doctoral research on special needs and Montessori. Her extensive teaching experience includes over 23 years working with neurodiverse children. She is a published co-author on the subject and has been invited to present at Montessori events around the country and host regular teacher education web sessions to help teachers and administrators around the world deliver the best Montessori experience possible. First and foremost, she loves being a Montessori educator and her passion for all children is endless. After years of experience teaching children, adults and those with special needs, she remains convinced that the Montessori Method is the best way for children to learn. DR. CHUCK FRADLEY, PRINCIPAL ROWLETT ACADEMY Dr. Fradley has almost 30 years of educational experience. He has held several leadership roles in Manatee County Schools. Currently, he is the Principal of Rowlett Elementary Academy, a public charter school, since 2018. His wife of 31 years, Katie, is also a local educator and they have one son, Henry.

SHARE A BIT ABOUT YOURSELF AND YOUR ORGANIZATION. JOSEPH STOKES, SARASOTA CHRISTIAN SCHOOL: One of the things that I think is very interesting about this school is it started in 1958 by a handful of Mennonite families. And at that time there was interest on the part of the Mennonite community to develop a school for their children. It is no longer just a school for Mennonite children. Now we have a non-denominational school, a pre-K to 12th grade school with a unique student body that represents the very youngest of students to students that are a step away from a college career or going to work. It is quite a wonderful environment. I think one of the strongest characteristics of this school would be the support that parents and community members have had for such a long period of time. We see sometimes that private schools come and go, but this school has stood the test of time. MARIA EVA CHAFFIN, SEEDS OF LIFE MONTESSORI: What makes my institution unique is we practice inclusion five to ten percent of the kids in each classroom have individualized plans for special needs. All the teachers are trained in and work with special needs students. We have 35 Montessori teachers and I think we have created a community of inclusion. We practice the fidelity of Montessori. All our teachers are Montessori trained and we are part of AMS, American Montessori Society. As a school we’re in the process of the certification to be a Montessori AMS, Montessori school. TANYA RYSKIND, NEWGATE MONTESSORI SCHOOL: We are a Montessori school as well, and we serve children eight weeks old through 12th grade. And I



think in this conversation, what makes us similar to seeds of life Montessori Academy is we are both in the business of following the philosophy of Maria Montessori, which makes our work more lofty. Our goal is not only education, but to better the world that we’re in for today’s children, as well as the future. NewGate is an international school. One third of our population is currently international and we are a lab school of the Montessori Foundation, which is one of the third largest international organizations in the world. So we are connected very, very closely to partnership schools all over the world, which tends to be similar

focused. We really work on building a workforce of our students who will stay in the community. And why do we do that? We do it right now because we are a commuter campus. Our students come from within a 50 mile radius. Very shortly we are building two new buildings on this campus–one is a nursing building. That’s going to be for a lot of our sciences, nursing and health-related programs. And then we are building a residence hall student center. So we will lose the commuter moniker and become just a regular university. And we expect to see our enrollment grow significantly. We have a dual enrollment program, which

“Our goal is not only education, but to better the world that we’re in for today’s children, as well as the future.” — Tanya Ryskind for many Montessori schools and the other big, unique idea that positions NewGate differently than many Montessori schools is because of the breadth and depth of the foundation, we are in a position to do research and to practice not only best current Montessori practices, but next Montessori practices. KAREN A HOLBROOK, PHD, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLORIDA, SARASOTA-MANATEE: For those who don’t know much about USF, we are one of the 12 state university system schools. We are a research university with about 50,000 students. Now that’s in USF overall. Our campus is a little different. We began as an upper division school. In other words, we taught juniors and seniors and master’s degree students. We added back several years ago, all of the grades. So now we have freshmen all the way through PhD programs across the school. And we think of ourselves as very community

means that kids that are juniors and seniors in high schools and have a 3.5 grade point average can take our college courses and the courses are going to count toward their degree for free, which is wonderful because then when they go to finish their final two years as juniors and seniors in college, they will only have to pay for that tuition. So it’s a great savings. And even for some of those, there’ll be scholarships that are available for them to finish their entire degree almost without cost. So we really do count on recruiting from our community. And one of our goals is to get the word out more about what programs we offer and what those students can do on this campus and get a great degree and go on to a career hopefully in the area, but also wherever they want to go in the future. CHUCK FRADLEY, PHD, ROWLETT ACADEMY: Rowlett is a K-5 academy, and we have a 6-8 academy. But as far as the


K-5 academy, honestly it’s about building that strong foundation for kids, working on that whole child. Our kids are all learning how to be learners at this stage of the game. So leadership is a huge part of our school. We’re a 7 Habits school–7 Habits of Highly Effective People from the Covey Organization. And we’re a recognized Lighthouse School. Leadership and involving students in decision-making and taking active roles in the classroom, kind of putting them out of their comfort zone, is a big part of what we do because that builds confidence. The arts are super important for our kids. They receive many different arts opportunities, strings, drama, dance on top of what they would get in a typical elementary school. Not necessarily because we want them to be dancers or violinists, but it’s because we’re giving them that opportunity to try something new, have people see them try something new, succeed or fail, practice, get better if they want, move on to something if that’s not their love or your desire. But at the end of the day, when my 10, 11-year-olds leave me and go on to middle school, they have that confidence to be their own person, know what’s right, know what’s wrong, and kind of know what they want. Social interaction took a hit with the pandemic. So the more opportunities we can give our kids to be socially successful is important. The academics are going to come, but we really have to build on that foundation because we can’t plan on what the world’s going to be in 10 years. So I think our job here is to just give them that strong foundation where they can be confident leaders and make the best decision with what’s presented to them.

WAS ROWLETT FOUNDED AROUND THE 7 HABITS AND LIGHTHOUSE PHILOSOPHIES? WERE THOSE IN PLACE FROM DAY ONE, OR HAVE THEY EVOLVED? FRADLEY: Rowlett has a very interesting background. The school actually opened in 2000 as a public charter school in Manatee County. The magnet draw was communication and arts, and the leadership at that point in time brought in the 7 Habits philosophy for our kids. Over the course of the years, it just got super strong. And then in 2014, the Manatee County School District was looking at making all their schools offer the same programs, which would’ve really hurt the programs that Rowlett offered. That’s why we became a charter school– to continue to offer those programs. And hence, that’s where the Lighthouse School designation came through. Every day, our kids get 30 minutes of what we call lead


do what you were told to do. As a charter school, I control where our resources go, and that’s very important to us.

HOW DOES HAVING A SET OF PRINCIPLES BENEFIT THE STUDENTS AT YOUR SCHOOL? CHAFFIN: The set of principles for Seed of Life is important. Kids are connecting, engaging, and belonging in an environment where they feel safe, they trust, and they are part of the community. STOKES: In our mission statement as might be expected, it would embody our savior as part of being a Christian school. So we talk about the love of Christ, we talk about learning about the scriptures, but one of the things that’s most important is that we serve. And so I think we find the service piece historically at this school has led to everything from environmental things to service projects in the community to mission trips. I’d like to say

“I’m very happy to say that we may have different names for the things that are important in our creed, but I think we all have a creed that is trying to produce citizens that are an advantage for the community, for the churches they come from, from the families that they serve.”— Joseph Stokes time, deal time, drop everything and lead. They work on different projects that make the community better or the school better. I get petitions all the time to do different things, so our kids are showing leadership in lots of ways. But yes, it’s actually been since the school was a normal district school, and we’ve just been able to continue to fund it since we’ve gone charter. We had the autonomy to do so. As a district school, you had to

that for Dr. Holbrook, I have seen the impact that USF branches had with local employment. And even though we have dual enrollment, not at her school, we know what she was saying about dual enrollment and that’s part of a service connection. I think because some of our students are looking at what they’re going to do with their careers, even as juniors in high school. And so the more that we can help students develop their

KAREN A. HOLBROOK, PHD, REGIONAL CHANCELLOR, UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLORIDA SARASOTAMANATEE CAMPUS Dr. Holbrook is regional chancellor at USF SarasotaManatee campus. She has served as president, The Ohio State University; interim president, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University; SVP for academic affairs and provost, University of Georgia; VP of research and dean of the graduate school, University of Florida; and serves on numerous advisoryboards in education and health-related fields. TANYA RYSKIND, HEAD OF SCHOOL, NEWGATE MONTESSORI SCHOOL Tanya has worked with the Montessori Foundation for many years and is an internationally admired leader in the Montessori school community. Tanya brings a broad set of experiences and skills from her years in both the legal and educational fields. Most importantly, Tanya has experience as a Montessori teacher trainer, an International Montessori consultant, motivational speaker, author and frequent presenter at Montessori conferences around the world. She currently serves on the board of the Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education (MACTE), the agency recognized by the United States Department of Education to accredit Montessori Teacher Education programs.She holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of New Hampshire, cum laude, majoring in Social Services,

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Tanya Ryskind (continued) with an emphasis on counseling. Her minor was in Spanish. She went on to earn her Juris Doctorate from the University of New Hampshire School of Law. She holds elementary Montessori certification from both the American Montessori Society and the International Montessori Council. Tanya’s continuing studies include Neuroscience and Learning through Harvard University, Oceanography and Meteorology at the State University of New York, Brockport. JOSEPH STOKES, HEAD OF SCHOOL, SARASOTA CHRISTIAN SCHOOL Mr. Joseph Stokes has made education his life’s work with over 45 years of experience in both the public and private sectors. Throughout his impressive career, Mr. Stokes has served as a district administrator, school principal and classroom teacher. Mr. Stokes is now serving as the Head of School at Sarasota Christian School.

service concepts about other people and get outside of themselves, the love of Christ ends up becoming something that is visible and real. And you realize that if we’re not serving in a way that helps others, we’re kind of missing a point of the gospel. So, I’m very happy to say that we may have different names for the things that are important in our creed, but I think we all have a creed that is trying to produce citizens that are an advantage for the community, for the churches they come from, from the families that they serve. IF YOU SPEND TOO MUCH TIME ONLINE, YOU WILL SEE THAT PARENTS AND PERHAPS KIDS ARE BOMBARDED WITH FEARS. AS A SCHOOL, DO YOU HAVE A PHILOSOPHY ON HOW TO APPROACH THESE ISSUES IN THE WORLD THAT ARE TRAUMATIC? FRADLEY: When you address some of the topics that have come up in the last few years in a conversation with children that are not of that maturity level yet where they can truly have a good deep conversation about it, you’re going to hear what is heard in the home. So I find that it’s a fine line to walk. And as a school, we have to be careful because we can’t show our specific personal opinions on things, because then that becomes possibly an influencer, whether we want it to or not. Things like the shooting in Texas. Well, we don’t ignore that. We practice drills, we practice safety. Kids know what to do, when to do it. I can explain that, I can show that, I can see that. But then if you come to some race and equity and political issues and some of those things of a higher level, honestly at the elementary stage, I don’t



believe we serve that purpose, because we can’t be everything to everybody at all times. And I believe that the students that leave our school will have that maturity to address those concepts and topics as they get a little bit older and more mature.

resonates with parents at our institutions and why all of our institutions have grown and will continue to grow over the next few years is because of the clarity, the willingness to be humans of character. And because we care about community.

STOKES: I have a lot of conversations with parents. We are looking at a couple of presentations for parents that have to do with the psychological impact of social media. There is increased anxiety and depression on the part of some students. We do see things that parents are shocked that their kids see and hear about. And so it is definitely on the minds of parents and in a lot of cases, they’re not quite sure where to go and what to do.

HOLBROOK: Well, it’s hard for me to jump in because we don’t deal with parents very often. The only time we deal with parents is if we have a real problem, and I’m very grateful to say many of our students are parents. So we’re working with parents already. And these are the ones that have come here because they truly want to get an education and a career. So our responsibility to all of our students is to be absolutely student centered and success oriented. So we say “If we have accepted you and you have come to the university, we want you to get out and we want you to get out fast. Not because we don’t want you to be here, but because we want to see you move on in your life and we want to prepare you for that.” So one of our biggest goals is to be student centered in what we do. It’s a commitment to community and the kinds of

RYSKIND: We’re all in a business of loving children and caring about children, no matter how old they are. I come from a university background and NewGate is contracted to do dual enrollment with USF. We’re very proud of that, but I think I would sum it up with this–We are clear. We have clarity. We understand the character of ourselves and the character of parents who

“I find that it’s a fine line to walk. And as a school, we have to be careful because we can’t show our specific personal opinions on things, because then that becomes possibly an influencer, whether we want it to or not.” — Dr. Chuck Fradley want what’s best for their children. And we understand that unless we are in community, in our own communities, within our classroom, within our hallways, within the building, within the neighborhood, within the city, that we can’t do this alone anymore. We have learned that. And so I think that what

things that we do. So those are different kinds of situations for us. Although I must say that a number of our students also have parents that they’re taking care of. And particularly now following the COVID situation, many of them are really being looked to, to take care of a very large family. So it’s quite a different situation.


WHAT ARE WE SEEING IN YOUNGER PEOPLE AFTER THE EVENTS OF THE LAST TWO YEARS IN TERMS OF THEIR EXPERIENCEE, WHAT IT’S DONE TO THEIR SKILL SETS AND WELLNESS AND WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT IT GOING FORWARD? CHAFFIN: I think kids today have a lack of knowing how to play. When they go to a playground, they’re looking for the teacher to direct that play time, they don’t know how to interact with each other. Of course, we’re getting kids after COVID, who were locked for so long that they are looking for help in building relationships. FRADLEY: We’re looking at two and a half years of impact with the pandemic. I feel very fortunate in Florida that we opened up the way that we did. My school was ready to go with instruction because we kind of saw the writing on the wall, and so we went straight to virtual and were ready to rock and roll. And then the next year, the majority of our kids came back to school. I’d say maybe a third stayed home. But even the kids that came back, we still didn’t let them work together. There were no partnerships, no group work. At best, they may have co-authored something on Google Classroom. So even kids that came to school are still in the same situation where they didn’t have the same opportunities. So whether they’re learning from home or learning from school during a pandemic, socially, it’s pretty much the same. HOLBROOK: There are so many resources that are available to students. There are still students who are experiencing the difficulties of COVID and all the challenges that are there.

We have counseling centers and we have advisors and you don’t have to make an appointment. You can stop in and there will always be an advisor ready there for you. We’ve changed the environment, the atmosphere to try to be as welcoming as we possibly can to get more people back. So instead of just having a student walk in and go to a classroom, we have a concierge desk that says good morning to every student that walks in. And if they need some help or they need some advice or they need to be connected. So the sense of connectedness is what we really strive for with our group of students. But, you know, again, students come and go and to their classes and we don’t always know who’s hurting, but we know there are people who are, and so we try to make as many resources available as possible. RYSKIND: We’ve all had to take a step back. Those of us who’ve been in education for a very long time, some things have stayed true and other things we’ve had to abandon. Early on when we were having conversations about being online for an extended period of time, a group of early childhood professionals got


of lost the story when we talked about the 15, 16, and 17 year olds and because we had students who were just going to their first year of college, who got locked out. So we had to deal with teenage isolation, teenage depression at the rate that we have it locally and generically.

of a mutual, organic, beautiful respect and the foundation of our core values. And I think families and students of all ages feel that it’s a visceral feeling when they’re on our campuses and believe it because we model it every day. We wake up and find joy in living our best selves.


HOLBROOK: Obviously we deal with them differently because for the most part, they are adults, but the way we deal with a lot of these stressors is through intellectual programs. If you take, for example, Ukraine, we had a series of five workshops on Ukraine. Each of them was three hours long, bringing in top speakers to talk about what’s going on in intelligence, what’s going on in cybersecurity. What’s hapening, how does it affect energy? How does it affect the food crisis? How does it affect hearts and minds in terms of misinformation and disinformation? We’ve had conferences to help people understand where Florida is specifically on climate change and what kinds of things we can do. So our approach is obviously different than it would be with young children, but it is an intellectual approach that tries to bring more information to bear on the problem.

RYSKIND: I really think in today’s culture, certainly Christian schools, parochial schools, Montessori schools, we call ourselves learning environments and communities. The stressors will always be there, but I know at our school, because we have different age groups with different appreciations of what’s going on, it’s very different to have a 10 year old talk about gun violence than it is to have a three year old use a stick and start shooting. I mean, there’s one of innocence. And then there’s one of trying to manage the world because they heard it on their older teenage brothers podcast. So I think that that’s

“We have counseling centers and we have advisors and you don’t have to make an appointment. You can stop in and there will always be an advisor ready there for you.” — Dr. Karen A. Holbrook together and we started to talk about what it would look like for the two and three and four year olds. What responsibility do we have? And those conversations were incredibly powerful and they were emotional because we all had the three year old in our heart and mind. And we kind


where our schools become places of transparency and consistency and we’re going to be there for them when they ask us the tough questions, but we’re not necessarily going to rub violence in their face. Montessori schools have a universal curriculum and we treat people the way we want to be treated. It is kind

CHAFFIN: The Impact of social media right now, and kids having the ability at the tip of their fingers to have information in minutes in seconds of what is going on around the world, what is going on in their community is big. Some of them don’t have the ability to know what is true and what is not. They see it online and believe it is real. We are helping our teenagers to read, to investigate, to research deep before taking that information immediately and believing it to be true.


LET’S TALK ABOUT THE TEACHER SHORTAGE. STOKES: The teacher shortage is not a new thing. If you just went by the numbers of baby boomers who were retiring and the number of replacements that were coming– it was not an equal number. Pay has been an issue for a long time, as well as the lack of autonomy when the profession became more publicized at the state and federal level with less control at the local level. Decisions at schools became more mandated and structured like competency testing. What will bring them back? I think it’s to remove some of the things that created the shortage in the first place. HOLBROOK: I think somehow we need to get children involved in learning to teach. And we’re hoping to do that in the dual enrollment program but it doesn’t seem to be an exciting career. How do we get youngsters to say, “this is what I want to do”? How do we get the teachers to see this as such an important career that it is? I don’t know. I think we certainly are starting to pay them better. The legislature did a better job of paying teachers to keep them in their career. But I think teachers now in some schools are expected to be the mother, the father, the disciplinarian, and they really serve the students in so many more ways than are expected. They serve the student in so many more ways than just providing the educational experience for them.

WHAT ARE THE THINGS THAT YOU ARE MOST EXCITED ABOUT AND THAT ARE MOST POSITIVE FOR KIDS IN YOUR INSTITUTION OR AS A CULTURAL PHENOMENA? CHAFFIN: I think in my institution the sense of belonging is really important as well as trust. We have increased playtime and we are helping kids to engage more because we know they need to build connections and have friends. STOKES: ​There are several things that are really an asset for the school right now. One is just the tremendous parental support. I hear a lot about dreams and ambitions, and that’s always


down. When everything else is going up, that I think is really an asset right now looking at kind of a period of time where there’s insecurity about the future. RYSKIND: I would agree that parent support for our community has been tremendous. Being debt free has really been a really stunning accomplishment in trying to manage costs. I am overjoyed with our international connections. This year we are going to launch an international partnership school with the school in Austria. And we’re looking at other high schools in Central and South America as well. And just the influx of international people who can, who believe that they, that Sarasota will leverage their

“The Impact of social media right now, and kids having the ability at the tip of their fingers to have information in minutes, in seconds of what is going on around the world, what is going on in their community is big.” — Maria Eva Chaffin inspiring for me. We’ve just started back into dual enrollment that I think is offering flexibility and a broader curriculum for our students. I’ve been very impressed with the people that we have hired that are going to be coming to our school. If I had one thing that would cure education, it would be to have a good teacher in the classroom. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? But every school is better when there’s a good teacher in front of the student. I’m also excited that our school is debt free. And so we have been able to do some things to hold costs


economic assets and their business acumen. The international component for our institution has been really exhilarating and uplifting. HOLBROOK: There’s nothing greater than the thought that we are going to have a new residence hall in the student center and have students that come from everywhere all over the world. We have an office of international affairs called USF World and we have a virtual international experience that our students can have. And we depend on the

students that are coming up. Some of these kids are coming out of schools that are so impressive and they know so much already. And they’ve been exposed to so much learning, so much personal experience or individual experience that we’ve really gotta be sharp to keep ahead of them so that we give them the best possible experiences when they get here. It’s just amazing. But I think the whole future is really, really exciting for us. FRADLEY: I think arts is a big focus for us. Violin and cello and drama and dance to elementary-aged kids, as well as our normal band and music and PE, art and coding, obviously, is something that we do as well. Again, that all just helps our kids with their leadership potential and develops them to be confident. We’re Rowlett. Parents know we’re Rowlett. They’re just going to come. We’ve got 200 kids on a waitlist. We’re good. SRQ