Curriculum, overcrowding and school safety were some of the key issues discussed by St. Johns County School Board District 4 candidates Kelly Barrera, Denver Cook and Dr. Abigail Levrini at a forum held Monday, June 25.
Hosted by the Ponte Vedra Beaches Coalition at the Ponte Vedra Beach Branch Library, the debate offered community members a chance to learn more about the candidates’ qualifications and their respective visions for the future of St. Johns County’s schools.
The first question the candidates fielded was regarding the St. Johns County School District’s curriculum.
When asked if he felt students were being adequately prepared for the workforce, Cook expressed a desire for a greater focus on vocational training, contending that too much weight is currently placed on testing.
“We teach to a standardized test — that’s what our curriculum does,” the Republican and Air Force veteran said. “In third, fourth, fifth grade, we teach to the minimum standard. We need to get past that.”
Levrini, a registered Democrat who holds a doctorate in school psychology and counseling psychology, said she felt more should be done to personalize each student’s learning experience.
“I think that the unfortunate part about our school system in general is we’re teaching to one type of student, and if a student doesn’t learn well that way, then they might not be successful,” she said. “And unfortunately, the ramifications are such that I get to see kids struggling with anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, self-mutilization and other issues that come about when you don’t think you’re good enough.”
Barrera, a Republican and the current District 4 representative, agreed with Levrini on the importance of individualized learning, contending that the school district already incorporates such methods into its curriculum. With regards to vocational training, she also noted the district already has a technical school in First Coast Technical College, as well as career academies to help prepare students for the workforce.
“What’s so neat about our career academies is that each one of them has business advisory boards, and each one of those business advisory boards has input on the curriculum,” she said. “They review our curriculum and they tell us when we’re not doing things that are in line with what business is doing right now. It keeps the career academies moving towards that cutting edge, towards that innovation.”
Securing our schools
Following the passage of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act earlier this year, schools in Florida have been doubling down on security, but many questions remain about how to keep students safe. When asked how they intended to help accomplish that goal, the candidates shared varying perspectives.
“Intervention and prevention is the key,” Barrera said, noting that the school district has already begun taking steps to enhance security across the board. “We’re hiring two more school psychologists, we’re hiring six mental health counselors and we’re also hiring an additional three social services workers to add to the staff that we already have.”
Given her background in psychology, Levrini said she felt her experience would prove valuable to the school district regarding mental health awareness, adding that she felt too much attention was being paid to the question of armed security.
“I’m not for arming teachers,” she said. “I think teachers are there to teach, and I think that there’s a lot more that we can be doing in terms of education and mental health before we should even be going there.”
Cook, on the other hand, felt the focus should be on hiring safety officers who would not only protect the students, but also serve as a resource and a role model.
“Safety doesn’t just come from having a cop in a high school,” he contended. “It comes from having a youth resource officer in an elementary school, teaching our kids values, morals and respect.”
With St. Johns County’s continued growth, many in the community have complained of overcrowding in the school system.
Barrera said the main way to combat growth is to build more schools. Citing the opening of additional K-8s and the expansion of Nease High School, she contended the county is doing everything it can in that regard given state restrictions.
“We are always planning ahead for the growth, and I think sometimes it’s a misunderstanding that the school district can just go out and build schools,” she said. “We have to be at a certain level of overcapacity before the state will even approve us to build more schools.”
Cook, however, said he “fundamentally disagreed” with the board on how to combat overcrowding.
“I am not an advocate of K-8s,” he said. “They underserve our middle school kids, and they’re too big for our elementary kids.”
Referencing the recent rezoning of several St. Johns County schools due to the opening of new K-8s, Cook also added that he felt attendance zoning was a major area for improvement.
“I think it’s really important as we go through this that you reach out and have serious, long-term conversations with communities about what you’re going to do when you zone,” he said. “And it can’t be when you come out with a plan. It needs to be ongoing, so we understand … what the processes are and what the pitfalls are.”
Levrini, however, said the solution simply came down to being more proactive.
“We’ve been very reactive, in my opinion,” she said. “The schools are overcrowded, and we could be doing better.”
Levrini also added that she felt St. Johns County had gotten complacent in its status as the top-ranked school district in the state.
“We can’t bank, unfortunately, just on the fact that we think we have good teachers and good this and good that, because … whatever we’re doing now, it’s not working.”
The primary election is set for Aug. 28. For more information about each of the candidates, visit .