After 11 weeks off for summer vacation, backpacked children across St. Johns County return to school today, Aug. 10, for the start of yet another school year. In an interview with the Recorder, Superintendent Tim Forson outlined the school district’s goals and plan of action for the year ahead.
“From an active image standpoint, we are certainly pleased with our performance last year,” Forson said. “But even with that, we take those benchmarks, and our goal is to move forward from there. We’re focusing on continuing to improve math performance, continuing to improve literacy where it’s not at a level we want it to be, so we will continue to focus on academics.”
According to Forson, one way in which the district hopes to improve upon academics is through the opening of new schools, as well as the expansion of existing schools, to ensure students have the proper space to learn.
“We’ll open a 600-student building at Nease High School that will greatly improve its capacity and ability to serve students there, and then we have under construction another K-8 school that is in the Nocatee development that will open next school year,” he said. “It will not open until the fall of 2018, and that will serve about 1,500 students.”
Forson explained that in recent years, the rapid expansion of the Nocatee community has left schools in the area overwhelmed.
“Valley Ridge is well over capacity,” Forson said. “It was actually built for 1,100 [students] and serves approximately 1,600, so the rapid growth and development of the Nocatee project has caused some stress in our ability to get schools online.”
Forson was optimistic, though, about St. Augustine’s new Picolata Crossing Elementary School, which opens today with the capacity for approximately 830 students.
“One of the nice benefits of being able to have this school online is that it’s a product of the half-penny sales tax that passed two years ago, so the support of the county has enabled this school to be built,” Forson said.
With the influx of new students and the building of new schools also comes a need for more teachers, however. Forson advised that recruitment will be another important focus for the school district going forward.
“For us, unlike some other school districts, we have to be very assertive, and we have to be very proactive in our effort to recruit teachers and to get teachers in positions that we need them,” he said. “We’ve held a number of job fairs, trying to invite and recruit candidates who may have just graduated or who have moved to the area who have teaching credentials. We make visits to a number of the colleges and universities within those colleges of education to try to make contact with future teachers and share the quality of the community. And St. Johns County is a great community to raise a family in; it’s not just about schools. If you want to raise a family, this is a great place to be.”
In addition to these initiatives, Forson said that St. Johns County schools will also be implementing new technology for use in the classroom by both teachers and students.
“We’re changing over our kindergarten to eighth grade to a different diagnostic assessment tool,” he said. “It’s called ‘i-Ready,’ a great new tool that will help teachers to know how their students are doing, and then of course modify instruction to respond to that, so that’s going to be a helpful tool to us.
“And in a number of our schools, we’ll start to see...a plan that will allow students to bring their own technology tool or device, whether that’s a laptop or an iPad,” Forson added. “So that’s an initiative that’s really rolling out this year. We had piloted the idea of one-to-one, where we were trying to have a laptop or a tablet for every student in a school, but the cost is prohibitive as a school system, so we’re looking for another way to make that happen.”
While academic achievement is important, Forson said that his primary objective is to continue building the character of the next generation.
“It’s not just about making kids have the tools academically,” he said, “but it’s helping kids to have the tools socially, emotionally, to build great character so they’re going to be great young leaders when the time comes.”