Everglades City has been an integral part of Southwest Florida for generations. It has supported important industries from the area that have continued to provide large areas with food products; this not only includes the Glades but the entire Sunshine State. Years ago, Oyster harvesting was a way of life that was passed from one family member to another. As that industry declined, stone crabs filled the void. If you’re enjoying some fresh claws on ice at any restaurant in Collier County, chances are that they originated from Everglades City. Ask any local about the city and they will be more than happy to tell you about the history of the Smallwood Store, the fact that fan boat rides outnumber gas stations, or how the town always comes together to clean up after a hurricane. Everglades City is more like a large family; not many degrees of separation between residents. Calling it a close-knit community doesn’t do it justice. Currently, the residents are coming together about a topic that everyone cares deeply about… education.
The school in Everglades City is quite unique in that it houses children from Pre-K all the way to its graduating seniors. This gives the city even more of a small-town feel than anywhere else in Southwest Florida. Schools across the state are given grades on the performance of their students. These grades are based on a set of tests that range from English to Math. Obviously, the goal is to achieve an A, but currently Everglades City is sitting at a grade of C. The community is determined to increase that ranking and have found a path to that end.
An incredible program that helps school improve their results has been spreading throughout not only the state, but throughout the country, is “The Leader in Me.” This innovative model is based upon Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. If you have had any interest in self-improvement, then you are aware of this classic book. It was first published in 1989 and conveys timeless principles of success in life. It introduces the readers to common perspectives and actions that successful people experience. Stephen Covey shows that many people can share different perspectives and yet also share traits that have led them to achievement. The reason he wrote the book was to show values based on character ethics that are universal to the top people in their fields. Some of the key points in the program are the importance of life-readiness for this complicated 21st century.; valued diversity, global awareness, communication, time management, critical thinking, and goal achievement.
After learning that other Collier Schools, including in Immokalee, that literally had their overall grade improve from an F to and A, educators in Everglades City got to work. They visited schools where this program has swung the culture of the students to that of success and achievement. Everyone came away with the same sense; this is something that would greatly benefit the students here. A large percentage of students in Everglades City start out with obstacles in their path; poverty, family struggles, etc. These situations create hurdles for kids before they even hear the first bell of the school day. If school is a fun, educational, and motivating experience, kids can leave school with an excellent attitude that carries throughout their day. The staff at the school adore these kids, and vice versa. Each room is filled with an entire grade. Individual staff members know every child in the building. From their perspective, this program is not just something they want, but something their students need.
The Principal, Jim Ragusa, is one of the main driving forces in the fundraising efforts to acquire “The Leader in Me” program. He has not only been at Everglades City School for five years now but has nearly 30 years of educational experience overall. Anyone who spends more than 60 seconds with Jim knows he is absolutely authentic in his drive to make his school better. The staff, students, community, even the writer of this article…have only great things to say about him. He understands that everything trickles down to the students; whether it is positivity vs. negativity or a great support system vs. lack thereof. Jim has a passion to implement this new system knowing what it can potentially do for the community. Everyone who has lived in Florida for any period of time is aware of the negative elements that are sweeping through our society that can especially affect our youth; poverty, drugs, mental health issues, etc. These are issues that have become an epidemic. Like a donor, Bette McGilvray, has stated, “It’s not a cliché if it’s true, children are America’s future.” It has been said that adults are just big kids. It is obvious that we all benefit when our children excel.
Any critical thinker worth their salt will agree that changing is just a part of moving forward. It is how we change that is important. Many agree it is time for Everglades City School to make that change; the proof, they say, is that The Leader in Me program has proven itself in other communities throughout the area. The cost of the four-year program is $15,000 per year for a total of $60,000. This includes the training, supplies, membership fee, and an employee (coach) from “The Leader in Me” to be there during the introduction phase. They would love to begin in time for the next school year, so time is of the essence.
If you would like to donate to help implement this program and help the school’s 150 children, you can send your contributions to: Everglades City School, The Leader in Me Fund, 415 School Drive, Everglades City, FL 34139.