NAS CO Asks For Better Schools
By Jeremy Morrison
When the chamber invited the commanding officer of Naval Air Station Pensacola to speak at its State of the Military luncheon, the organization wasn’t sure what his remarks might entail.
“We didn’t know what he would say, frankly,” said Todd Thomson, president of the Greater Pensacola Chamber.
CO Capt. Tim Kinsella’s Oct. 10 address concerned the Navy’s place within the local community in general, but it was his closing thoughts that have struck a chord. The military, he said, faces some challenges bringing Navy families to the area due to the region’s educational shortfalls.
“There are military families that do not want to be stationed here because of education,” Kinsella told the chamber. “The families that have school-aged children, the first thing that they look at when they see that they have orders to Pensacola, ‘What are the schools like?’ So then they say, ‘I don’t want to go there.'”
Capt. Kinsella then implored community leaders to work together to help improve the region’s educational prospects, particularly where it concerns schools in proximity to NAS Pensacola.
“So how do we fix it? How do we get there?” he asked. “I can’t do it by myself. I need you. I need everybody in this room to be part of that, of getting to a solution that gives our families the option, a choice, where they can feel safe and secure in the knowledge that their kids are going to get a good education. They shouldn’t have to sacrifice their kids’ education to serve their country.”
In a subsequent radio interview, Escambia County School District Superintendent Malcolm Thomas said he found Kinsella’s comments “very disparaging and disappointing coming from someone in his position.” He linked the school district’s challenges to areas of poverty throughout the area and said that improvements were being made.
“We’ve been making good progress, and I think people ignore that,” Thomas said. “And what I’d rather see the commander doing is help educate those members that for a second year in a row Escambia County has been ranked as a B, as in bravo, school district. Ninety-two percent of our schools are now rated C or higher.”
Reactions from other corners have been different.
“When Capt. Kinsella says something like that, we believe we have to do something to help him,” said Justin Beck, chairman of the chamber’s board of directors. “In my opinion, this isn’t Capt. Kinsella going rogue; this is something that they’re dealing with.”
‘We Want to Have Good Schools’
Education in Escambia County has long had its share of critics.
“I have fought this for as long as I have been an education advocate,” said Patty Hightower, chairman of Escambia’s school board. “There were always people that would make comments about the quality of our schools.”
Hightower has her standard response to this criticism—”What I always ask people is, have you been to our schools?”
Like the superintendent, Hightower points to Escambia’s successes—”we’re a B district, a bravo district”—and concedes that there’s more work to be done. True enough, the Florida Department of Education does list Escambia as a B district, with only four schools in the district receiving a grade of D. But there are still 25 schools with a grade of C, and two of the D schools are in Warrington, near NAS.
“We want to have good schools,” she said. “I know our students and our teachers and our administrators work really hard, and yet we don’t get as far ahead as we’d like to be.”
In his radio interview, Superintendent Thomas pointed to a low-income housing development near NAS as the reason behind low-performing schools in Warrington.
“Warrington, their problem is they are serving a very high poverty population from Moreno Court project, which is right there adjacent to the front gate of the base,” Thomas said.
Kevin Adams, school board member representing District 1, also subscribes to this theory, that pockets of poverty in Escambia are the cause of its educational challenges. In addition to the economics, students from these areas, he said, also often struggle with hardships in their home life.
“You know, some of these kids did not win the lottery when it comes to their family situations,” Adams said.
Whereas some students have been intellectually engaged from the get-go—being read to daily and so forth—others show up to school with little of the knowledge or tools necessary for academic success. This, Adams said, is a big part of the problem.
“The better we can have them at kindergarten, the better off they are,” he said.
The school board member said he’s not sure what the appropriate remedies are to offset this educational inequity.
“It’s a tough situation. It takes the whole community. It takes a village,” Adams said. “It’s going to take a village, and it’s not going to happen overnight.”
In the immediate, both Thomas and Hightower point to the district’s school choice policy, which allows students to choose a school outside their designated zone, as a fix for NAS families. This fix, of course, doesn’t hold when the schools with better grades reach capacity.
During Capt. Kinsella’s chamber address, he suggested that a charter school geared toward Navy families might be appropriate. Actually, he said such a charter would have ripple effects that would be “transformational” for the Warrington area.
While Superintendent Thomas has demurred at the notion of a new charter, contending there wouldn’t be enough students to support it—”There aren’t many students on the base to begin with”—Hightower said she’s open to idea. She’s already scheduled a meeting with Kinsella to get a better feel for potential solutions.
“I just want to hear from him, what is the solution? What would he need to have happen?” Hightower said. “What is it that he sees as an obstacle to the change that he wants to see?”
The Navy, via NAS Pensacola, and before that the Pensacola Navy Yard, has been woven into the regional fabric since the 1800s. And it contributes mightily to the local economy. This is perhaps nowhere better understood than within an organization such as the chamber of commerce.
“Seventy-six thousand jobs are impacted by the military,” Thomson said.
“Forty percent of our economy, $9 billion, however you want to say it,” Beck said.
With numbers like that, it demands attention when the commanding officer of NAS sets his sights on the quality of local education. And according to Thomson and Beck, the chamber is committed to working to improve the area’s educational offerings.
In particular, the chamber will be paying close attention to Escambia’s search for a new superintendent. Although the superintendent post was formerly an elected position, voters decided last year to switch to an appointed superintendent.
“The chamber is going to be absolutely engaged,” Beck said, adding that the district needed to tap a “world-class” candidate for the superintendent position. “We’re going to have a voice at that table.”
And while it was the CO of NAS this time voicing concerns about education in Escambia County, such concerns are not exclusive to military families. Such concerns are widespread throughout the district. The chamber, of course, is already aware of this, as its members are faced with attracting employees to this same educational landscape.
“They’re not just military issues; they’re really community issues,” Thomson said.