In the spirit of celebrating Independence Day, it is opportune to reflect on our nation’s great attributes and the freedoms that we enjoy as Americans.

On this July 4, 2020, it is 269 years since Benjamin Franklin began working on his greatest experiment, that of uniting then-British colonies into one nation, and 244 years since the Declaration of Independence was adopted.

For two-and-a-half centuries, our republic has endured and adapted in response to the values of its people, increased participation of diverse segments of our society and met citizens’ needs that shifted along with changing times.

That’s a long time for any institution to exist, especially one initially regarded as a great experiment. But an even older institution is credited with the longevity of our nation’s form of government and that is public education.

The first public school opened in the American colonies in Boston, Mass., in 1635. Soon after, the first free taxpayer-supported public school opened in 1639 in Dorchester, Mass. These openings preceded the Declaration of Independence by 141 and 137 years, respectively.

Public education was viewed as important by our country’s founders, and the responsibility was bestowed at the state level as described in Article IX of the Florida Constitution: “The education of children is a fundamental value… and a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.”

In Florida, that responsibility was handed to each county to operate a school district where a “local school board shall operate, control and supervise all free public schools within the school district and determine the rate of school district taxes within the limits prescribed herein.”

As parents, grandparents and community members, we all want what is in the best interests of our children. While COVID-19 may have disrupted our lives for now, we have demonstrated our value for education by approving a tax referendum to provide additional revenue in support of our local schools; and we have been actively involved in our children’s classrooms, supporting teachers and volunteering in our schools. It is clear that we care about public education, and we care a lot.

That is why it is vitally important that we pay attention to our local school board and the local election that goes with it. Both primary and general elections are important as it is possible the school board election will be determined in the Aug. 18 primary.

This November, the ballot will be long. It will include everything from the President of the United States to municipal races. There is a lot for which to prepare— to learn, understand and make decisions.

While much attention is rightfully garnered at the presidential level, it is equally (if not perhaps more) important to pay attention to, prepare for and vote for the local positions. They may not get as much air time as a presidential candidate or even a state legislator may get, but these local positions, including the two open Sarasota School Board seats, will be guiding our district.

I hope you will take the requisite time to learn, understand and vote for the two open seats on the School Board. I believe both seats deserve every citizen’s careful thought and research.

I encourage you to register if you aren’t already registered to vote, and make sure you exercise your right and responsibility to vote. For yourself, your neighbors, your children, the future. It’s Independence Day. Let freedom ring!

We seem to have made a real mess of ourselves.

The images of our country as a strong and unified nation seem like a distant mirage as we battle a deadly novel coronavirus while also combatting an even deadlier enemy–US, divided.

One ultimately will meet its demise when science advances a vaccine to destroy its ability to spread the contagion while the other will meet its fate only when our souls are laid bare and love for one another triumphs.

I’m not naïve enough to think that any one of us singularly can solve this problem, and frankly, we probably won’t achieve this utopia until we reach the gates of heaven.

But the current strife does call us to accept the incumbent responsibility to be kind, compassionate, accepting leaders — positive role models who embody love for humanity, decency and respect for every person and demonstrate a commitment to eradicate inequities and racism, once and for all.

The writers of the Declaration of Independence asserted that the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness belong to each and every one of us, not just some of us.

Thomas Jefferson wrote: “We must educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

The recognition that a republic “for the people and by the people” requires an educated people is imbedded in our nation’s founding documents.

However, as we’ve learned through history, our country has made a slow progression to a more inclusive definition of “we, the people.” In our nation’s early years, the famous words were hollow, ignorant at best and egregious at worst, considering that the eloquent Jefferson who penned the phrase was himself the owner of slaves. It would take amendments and court decisions to arrive at a more inclusive but still imperfect union.

Education and opportunity are imperative if we are to achieve these rights for all and produce an enlightened public that values justice, respect and trust that optimizes human potential, not destroys it.

We, individually and collectively as members of our community, are the only ones who ultimately can leverage our energies and broaden our understandings to create an environment in which people from all walks of life can live together harmoniously. When we open the portal to envisioning what can be, and what we know what should be, that is when transformation can begin.

This is a generational moment and a chance for true transformation if we embrace it. It will require courageous conversations, profound recognition of our own iniquities, and resolute determination to live out the words we speak when pledging allegiance to our flag, our country and to each other:

We are “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

If hilarious memes popping up all over social media by quarantined parents attempting to homeschool their children during the COVID-19 school shutdown are an indication, laughter indeed is good medicine.

“Been homeschooling a 6-year-old and 8-year-old for one hour and 11 minutes. Teachers deserve to make a billion dollars a year. Or a week.”

“At the end of the first day of my attempts at homeschooling, my conclusion: Teachers are superheroes. The end.”

“Observations after 2.5 hours of homeschooling: 1. Teachers need to be paid more than professional athletes and all of Hollywood combined. 2. Homeschooling will NOT be in our future plan. 3. It’s not too early for a drink.”

Many of us can relate to the lighthearted quips. It helps to ease stress when we see others in the same situation and can laugh together at ourselves.

Underlying the humor is a sincere and welcome heightened appreciation for educators. Homeschooling can be a challenge in the calmest of times, and when parents and children are cooped up, missing their usual social and recreational outlets and daily structure, and in a home environment with entertaining distractions, it can be an impossible feat.

Some might think homeschooling would be an easier pivot for a teacher who’s also a parent. In reality, it adds complexity and competition for the teacher-parent’s time and attention.

Teachers often seem to have super powers, but they really are mortals—albeit heroic mortals–with their own stresses and challenges.

Imagine yourself, a teacher of special needs students, scurrying to get ready for the first week of remote instruction, which happens to fall on the same week your baby is due to be born. But you are determined that students will see your smiling face on camera and get the reassurance they need.

Put yourself in the shoes of a principal whose workday has stretched to 24/7 and you now carry two cell phones so you can respond to an enormous volume of emails and calls from parents, students, and teachers while managing the care of your elderly parent. And you extend yourself to comfort and encourage all who depend on your leadership.

Education leaders and behavioral specialists advise us to keep ourselves and our children calm, project positivity, be patient, and try not to stress about strict adherence to curriculum during this pandemic.

That advice was at the heart of our discussion when the Education Foundation of Sarasota County team quickly convened to identify the ways we could swiftly adapt our delivery methods and continue our important work for students, teachers and schools.

While the district prepared its remote instruction plan, we developed and launched virtual support services and resources including college-career advising and mentoring. Continuing these services is especially valuable for high school juniors and seniors whose worlds have been turned upside down just as they entered a new, exciting phase leading to their futures.

We gave special thought to utilizing social media and digital platforms to provide a valuable social-emotional resource and information hub for teachers, students and their families.

The social-emotional learning lessons offered on our website at EdFoundationSRQ.org/social-emotional-learning-lessons are an important component of our resources.  Topics include managing stress before it manages you, managing relationships in tight quarters, managing emotions, bouncing back from challenges, and self-management.

Lessons are presented in professionally produced videos and downloadable handouts, are useful for all ages, and can be accessed by anyone at no charge. The five lessons had a total of 2,380 pageviews four weeks after launching.

The outcome we all want when the crisis is past is for everyone to emerge whole—physically, mentally, emotionally. We will be glad to leave behind the word “coronavirus” but we hope to carry forward new respect, appreciation, and gratitude for everyone who contributes to our children’s education.

That includes professional classroom teachers, principals, instructional aides, support staff, and all of the newly minted homeschool teachers–also known as Mom, Dad, Pop, Nana—who crack jokes at their own expense while doggedly persevering to help their loved ones keep learning.

When you think of a self-actualized person, what comes to mind? What role does education play in this development?

If ever a topic warranted sober deliberation in civil discourse, it is our country’s public education system. In my opinion, it is a black mark on our society that education has become overly politicized and yanked between extreme viewpoints like a frayed rope in a tug-of-war contest.

The pendulum continues to swing back and forth, and unified solutions to address education’s major challenges remain at bay.

Strengthening economic prosperity and building social trust can be pursued simultaneously in education with a “yes, and” mindset instead of “either/or.”

In David Brooks’ recent column, “The Nordic model: thinking,” the highly regarded columnist described the approach utilized with great success by the countries of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland.

As Brooks explains, the basis for today’s Nordic countries enjoying heralded economic prosperity, soaring personal happiness quotient and enviable shared social responsibility was laid 200 years ago.

Their approach calls for education that results in students’ complete moral, emotional, intellectual and civic transformation, equipping them to see the world in more complex ways while developing strong relationships between personal freedoms and social responsibilities.

The Nordic countries demonstrate that providing the best education for all is both an economic stimulus and a societal equalizer. It lifts citizens out of a class system that would limit individual potential and hamper the capacity to contribute to national prosperity.

Before you stop reading further to object to this proposition under the false notion of socialism, this is exactly where the intersection of “yes, and” comes into play.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell recently attributed the United States’ low labor force participation rates to our declining educational attainment rates in comparison to peer counties, particularly among lower- and middle-income people.

So, if we are to improve labor force participation rates, increase educational attainment rates and produce more responsible, contributing members of society, we must expand our approach to more than just what someone can do. It also must be applied to who they can be.

Education’s purpose is to create more self-actualized persons, not just to improve the ability to sort students for college or career, school or trades. That’s why, at the Education Foundation of Sarasota County, we are in pursuit of college, career and life readiness for all students.

Again, referencing Brooks, Americans often think of schooling as the transmission of specialized skill sets. We see that in stories criticizing schools for not “producing” enough skilled workers to repair our cars, fix our plumbing, and build our houses.

If we use a non-critical approach, we can agree that trades workers are needed; that both technical school and traditional college are valid pathways; and expanding postsecondary pathways will benefit everyone.

It’s not beneficial to limit education’s purpose to skill mastery or to define a worker’s worth in terms of a skill. Instead, think of schooling as a piece of the whole that is education.

In its purest form, education is not a means to an end; it is a value of lifelong learning. Education produces intellectually robust, curious citizens capable of original thinking, creating and designing solutions to the environmental, political and economic challenges that our world is facing.

Yes, we need plumbers, and yes, we need philosophers. And there’s no reason a skilled carpenter can’t also be a teacher.

It comes down to what we, as a community, want. Do we want to perpetuate a class system with “either/or” classifications? If we choose the “yes, and” approach, how will we amplify education’s highest potential in our community?

It’s our prerogative to decide the manner in which we come together to prepare every student for success.

We have the power. Do we have the will? Could this be Sarasota County’s raison d’être?

Did I catch your attention?

In these busy days, many people find it convenient to rely on favorite pundits who digest the news overload and provide their interpretations in highlight versions. They boil it down for us and often present complex, nuanced content in talking points and catchy headlines flavored with a strong dose of biased opinion.

Learning to find and validate objective, fact-based information on which to form our own conclusions is increasingly difficult while growing more important every day. It saves time, but dare we trust others’ experiences, perspectives and sources when something is important?

We can foresee problems that can arise when we accept others’ takes as valid and unbiased without engaging in research and critical thinking of our own.

It is through critical thinking that we go to the primary source, conduct our own research, form an independent decision, and then draw upon the divergent thinking of others to solve problems. In a world that has become wired for 24/7 activity, what more could we learn if we took the time to drill down into the research and formulate our own thoughts and opinions?

We are taking our own advice at the Education Foundation of Sarasota County.

The EFSC board of directors has established a bold, ambitious strategic plan to advance our mission: To enhance the potential of students, promote excellence in teaching, and inspire innovation in education, guided by strategic philanthropy.

Translating our strategic plan into actionable objectives is necessary to address the issues that matter most to families, students, teachers and a community of education supporters.

To that end, we are engaged in deep-dive research exercises utilizing 21st century design thinking and creative problem-solving processes—the same used by corporations to catalyze innovative changes and achieve long-range goals.

Our approach includes going to the source for first-person answers to our questions. For example, in the area of student support, our strategic task force asked, “How can we better support students as they transition to their adult lives?”

Having decided that it’s essential to find answers and create solutions tailored to our local community’s needs, as opposed to charting a plan based on another community’s experience, we are doing original research.

We are hearing directly from a cross-section of our community—volunteers, mentors, Local College Access Network partners, to name a few—and conducting one-on-one interviews with kids ages 16 to 24 to learn what was most or least helpful before they transitioned from high school. We also are seeking ways in which they can help us co-create solutions.

The EFSC believes a vibrant and prosperous community is dependent upon the value its community members place on high quality education, and to that end, it requires empowering stakeholders with unbiased, issues-oriented educational information to consider in forming their decisions.

We agree with a quote often attributed to Aristotle: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

Our world indeed is changing, and we need more people who are willing to look beyond the headlines and pundits and employ critical analysis to today’s issues. Isn’t that the point of research?

With the dawning of 2020, we have completed one-fifth of the 21st century and are embarking on not just a new year but a whole new decade. That’s a sobering reminder that time marches on even when some people and institutions remain in a 20th century frame of mind. Fortunately, we can learn from our awesome 43 teachers who were selected by their schools for recognition at our recent Teacher of the Year Awards celebration. By example and instruction, they teach timeless skills that can help students to succeed now and in the not-so-distant future. All of us can benefit by applying these timeless lessons to our personal and professional lives.

  • Be flexible, adaptable and creative.

Today’s effective teachers stay abreast of and respond to emerging needs in our fast-changing world. They eschew complacency and refuse to allow themselves and their charges to grow bored.

Heather Young, the district’s 2020 Teacher of the Year, received accolades for the 21 years she spent teaching gifted students before changing to teach visual arts to K-5 students with varying capabilities.

Josh Grant, 2020 High School Teacher of the Year, changed professions, earned his teacher certification and happily taught English for seven years before switching direction again to revitalize his school’s digital media program using relatable topics and 21st century technological methods.

  • Develop leadership skills by modeling positive traits.

Teacher-leaders recognize that character-building helps our youth grow into responsible citizens competent to handle personal and societal challenges in a global culture. Some teachers focus on building a classroom community, collaborative learning, and managing both success and failure, while others emphasize compassion, patience, risk-taking and turning mistakes into revisions.

Marissa Dobbert, 2020 Middle School Teacher of the Year, teaches manners, kindness, accountability and persistence along with mathematics.

The approach helped turn around an angry middle school student with an unstable home life. “He had been a leader but in the wrong direction,” Dobbert said, “then he started leading in the right direction.”

  • Discover and commit to an inspired purpose.   

A purposeful plan starts with discovering what sparks excitement and curiosity. Both Young and Ali Binswanger, 2020 Innovation Award recipient, were inspired by their own mothers who taught. They, and many more high-performing teachers, cite parents and beloved former teachers as motivation for wanting to improve children’s lives by teaching. Indeed, many enthusiastic teachers frequently describe their choice to teach as “a calling, my mission, my purpose.”

  • Build relationships based on the whole person approach.   

The setting doesn’t have to be a classroom; it can be a corporate office or neighborhood. We can improve personal and professional relationships anywhere by remembering that people respond best when we are interested in them as individuals. In the words of Young:

“We don’t always know what kids are going through, and everyone comes in with something different. Be understanding and patient. Aim for positive long-lasting results, not just success on a single assignment.”

Wise words like these from stellar educators don’t go out of style or become dated. I believe that internalizing these and other affirmative life lessons can produce more long-lasting improvements than a traditional but mundane list of resolutions. Best wishes for a prosperous, inspired and creative new decade filled with the joy and insight gained from continuous learning.

We believe a vibrant and prosperous community is dependent upon the value its members place on high quality education.

And it’s evident our community cares. A lot.

From our vantage point at the Education Foundation of Sarasota County, we have seen this value demonstrated in good and bad times.

We have celebrated the successful passage of a tax referendum, community collaborations to improve student outcomes, and myriad student scholarships provided by private donors and organizations.

We’ve also witnessed times when difficult situations call for tough decisions, and concerned citizens persuasively defend their positions and demand action.

In all cases, the forces of energy that advocate on behalf of education are vigorous, potent and powerful.

Now it is time to redirect and channel this energy in support of our teachers.

The Education Foundation of Sarasota County is privileged to showcase teachers when we host the annual Sarasota County Teacher of the Year celebration.

Teachers are everyday heroes who show up, day in and day out, for students. No matter what is happening internally in the district or externally in the community, teachers are present to give their best.

They show up and turn down the volume of loud, sometimes contentious discourse to keep focused on what’s most important–educating our youth.

They show up on campuses to instruct, listen, coach, guide, inspire. They show up at school games, plays, concerts, parent-teacher meetings. They open their classrooms at off hours and their hearts at all hours to tutor, mentor, advocate.

Sometimes a steady teacher is the one reliable adult a struggling student can count on for balance amid life’s noisy intrusions.

Teachers who daily invest themselves to this degree can get depleted. They find replenishment in relationships and connections—with families, their community, fellow teachers and students.

In fact, this year’s finalists for Teacher of the Year expressed a bedrock belief that a teacher must be present and engaged for students to learn.

Marissa Dobbert, 2020 Middle School Teacher of the Year, gave an example: “A student from an unstable, harsh home life came to class angry, aggressive, and often disruptive. I saw his potential and was able to help him realize he was a natural leader who was heading in the wrong direction, and it was within his power to become a leader going in the right direction. We have to be alert to opportunities to redirect.”

In the words of Heather Young, 2020 Elementary Teacher of the Year: “You show up every day and don’t ever give up on them even if they want to give up on themselves.”

A student’s words underscored the impact made by Josh Grant, 2020 High School Teacher of the Year: “I had a tough sophomore year, and when I needed guidance he was there to listen without judgment and helped me get the resources I needed. Mr. Grant is trustworthy, opens our eyes to the bigger picture, pushes us to work to achieve the highest possible outcome, and will go out of his way to help a student in need.”

These teachers represent the consistently high caliber of our 2,500-plus teachers who have earned Sarasota County a reputation as an A-rated school district and a vibrant place for young families to raise their children.

If you are unable to attend our December 11 Teacher of the Year celebration, please send a note of encouragement or gratitude to our teachers by email to info@EdFoundationSRQ.org. I will see that your supportive message is shared.

Let’s take this opportunity to lift a strong, united community voice in appreciation for teachers who show up for our community every day.

The North Star strategy at the Education Foundation of Sarasota County is for all students to graduate with purpose prepared for their postsecondary future.

Our job is not finished when the student receives a high school diploma. We know that jobs today increasingly require graduates to acquire some level of specialized training, postsecondary credential, or workforce relevant certification, while also adopting a lifelong learning habit of acquiring skills and knowledge to empower them to adapt and prosper in future.

As the backbone organization for our Local College Access Network, we are examining how we can strengthen student readiness, access, affordability and completion to ensure students can successfully transition from high school and get “to and through” a technical school, community college, four-year university or military service.

We know that many factors influence this journey and students often take circuitous paths, and that’s okay. Yet, many do not successfully complete the courses they have chosen. As a community, we can help them do better.

It’s perplexing that we celebrate a nearly 90% high school graduation rate, yet we have only a 71% college-going rate, including technical schools, which is below the state average of 76%. And, according to the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, only 11% of disadvantaged college students will earn a degree within six years of enrolling in college, compared to about 55% of their more advantaged peers. None of these percentages are glowing.

What does the phrase “graduate with purpose” really mean?

According to Stanford University’s Center on Adolescence, purpose is defined as “a forward-looking intention to accomplish goals that are meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self.”

Director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence Dr. Bill Damon further states: “The biggest problem growing up today is not actually stress; it’s meaninglessness.”

The center shares a growing body of evidence indicating that purpose is associated with academic achievement, vocational success, energy, resilience and psychological and physical health throughout the lifespan. Purpose can be found in family, work, faith and other important life missions.

The EFSC is embarking on a creative problem-solving exercise that incorporates design thinking to help us understand how we might better empower youth in our community to discover who they are (interests and aptitudes); identify goals; and implement action steps that enable them to achieve their postsecondary pathways that lead to satisfying careers so that they become contributing members of the community.

We anticipate this will be messy work, and we are up to the challenge. With the sobering statistics listed above, coupled with youth depression and anxiety rising at alarming rates, helping students to find their purpose actually could lead to them owning their futures and living lives of intentionality.

That’s the “sweet spot” where you arrive when you figure out what you’re good at, with what you love, and with what you care about.

As proponents for empowering students with social-emotional skills, the Education Foundation of Sarasota County is pleased to note much-needed attention being given to increasing awareness of and finding solutions for harmful effects of heightened stress on school-aged youth.

The encouraging movement is boosted by Florida’s new requirement, effective this school year, that all students in grades 6-12 will be provided with a minimum of five hours of mental health lessons, and by our local community’s collaborative efforts to present mental health experts’ research and guidance on this important topic.

There is no question this is a grave issue that warrants our collective concerted attention. Nationwide, millions of young people experience high stress and depression. Since 2011, there has been a 59% increase in teens reporting depressive symptoms. In a 2017 survey conducted with Florida high school students, 27.8% reported feeling sad or hopeless for two or more years in a row.

A proactive approach is integral to the EFSC’s College, Career and Life Readiness Initiative. We can and must teach our youth to build crucial skills for navigating stress and anxiety. That is why, at the EFSC, we continually illuminate the importance of social-emotional learning as a core component of life readiness.

Teaching our children to develop healthy emotional behaviors is a proactive approach and best explicitly taught throughout the education continuum alongside academic subjects.

The proactive approach makes sense: Students who learn to incorporate life skills are better able to focus on academic work and make informed plans for their future college and career plans.

Conversely, surveys show that teens say their main way of coping with stress is to turn to a screen, while scientific data indicates that two and more hours a day on social media correlate with a higher chance of having unhappy feelings.

These f acts, and more, are interwoven with families’ personal stories and surprising insights from brain researchers and psychologists, into the just-released documentary film, Screenagers Next Chapter: Uncovering Skills for Stress Resilience.

The new film is the second documentary by Dr. Delaney Ruston, a physician and parent. Last year the EFSC sponsored local showings of Ruston’s first award-winning film, Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age.

Through donors’ support of EFSC initiatives, we are able to provide educators, families and the community with free showings of the latest film with its emphasis on developing teens’ stress resilience and supporting their mental wellness in the digital and social media age.

Admission is free to “Screenagers Next Chapter.” Required reservations can be made online at EdFoundationSRQ.org/Screenagers. The film will be shown from 6 to 8 p.m. on Oct. 15 at North Port High School and 6 to 8 p.m. on Oct. 22 at Riverview High School.

Immediately after the film, a question-and-answer session with a panel of subject-matter experts in the fields of child psychology, education and mental health will be led by Suzanne Burke, the EFSC’s senior director of CCLR. Burke, whose doctorate is in education and curriculum, brings a depth of knowledge to the issue with 33 years’ experience in education that includes 10 years focused on social-emotional learning.

The film is recommended for middle school and older students, families, teachers, and anyone interested in promoting healthy social-emotional behaviors in students. The film trailer can be viewed at ScreenagersMovie.com. E492BA61-D4F8-4694-8B00-967BA99C0BEA

Nationwide, 661,000 high school graduates in the Class of 2018 who were eligible–but didn’t complete an application–for federal financial aid lost out on their share of $2.6 billion in free money for college, according to NerdWallet, a financial media company.

How is this happening when cost is a top reason many students give for not pursuing or completing postsecondary education?

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, is key to getting money for postsecondary education, including work-study, government grants and loans, aid from states, and scholarships from organizations and schools.

Fear or confusion about completing the FAFSA or an assumption by some families that they need not bother because their students would not qualify for aid are common reasons given for a lower-than-desired FAFSA completion rates.

The same factors cause some families to miss out on potential state scholarships and grants by not submitting the Florida Financial Aid Application (FFAA), required for Florida Bright Futures.

To clear up confusion and emphasize the importance of completing the forms, a community-wide campaign is launching October 1 through the Local College Access Network to provide assistance for all high school seniors and their families to complete the FAFSA and FFAA applications as integral to postsecondary planning.

We are committed to this collaborative, full-press endeavor. Increased FAFSA completion rates are related to higher rates of postsecondary completion, especially among low-income students, which aligns with the strategic goals of the Education Foundation of Sarasota County and LCAN. In fact, some states (not Florida) now require that seniors complete the FAFSA as a graduation requirement.

The FAFSA is worth taking the time to fill out. For one thing, financial aid is not just for students with lower incomes. More students are eligible to receive financial aid than their families might realize. Many scholarships, grants and other types of assistance, such as merit-based awards, are not needs-based but require the FAFSA information to be considered.

Another important clarification is that students planning to go to technical colleges are eligible for financial aid; it is not limited to traditional college or university students.

Students who qualify for Bright Futures scholarships programs, but think they don’t need to complete the FFAA because they are going to college out of state, are advised to reconsider. If they don’t file their FFAA by Aug. 31 of their senior year, they can’t tap into their Bright Futures funds should circumstances change and they return to Florida.

Everyone has a role to play in this community-wide campaign. Volunteers are needed to help families complete the applications. Prior experience with the FAFSA application is not needed. Free training will be provided September 16 and September 19 at United Way of Suncoast office. Go to http://www.LaunchYourPlan.com/fafsa to find specific dates and locations of FAFSA and Bright Futures open houses and register for volunteer training.

The FAFSA and FFAA applications open Oct. 1, and you can apply beginning that day. Helpful links are provided at the end of this column. Because many colleges and universities make priority financial aid decisions by December 1, it’s advantageous to apply as soon as possible.

A series of FAFSA and Bright Futures open houses will be held during the month of October at convenient locations throughout Sarasota County for families that need assistance. There is no charge to students and families. Financial aid officers from colleges will be present to assist with technical aspects, and dual-language volunteer support will be available.

Don’t let funds go to waste. If you have a senior, you are strongly encouraged to take advantage of this opportunity. Remember, applications open Oct. 1. Please spread the word to your neighbors, family and friends.