At this time of year, it’s a safe bet holiday wish lists will include technology, electronic or digital devices for most everyone from toddlers to grandparents.

After all, look at everything today’s smart gadgets do for us: They guard our homes, exercise our bodies and minds, provide entertainment, pay our bills, order our groceries, get us to our destination–and the list continues.

No question about it: These devices are fun, informative, integrated and engaging.

But some experts caution those compelling games, apps, videos and programs that play on tablets, TVs, laptops and cell phones also have the potential to become addictive. New evidence is emerging about screen time’s effect on a young person’s developing brain. Studies from respected sources, such as Psychological Science and Pew Research, show that heavy tech users have a higher risk for depression and anxiety, and frequent social media use can rewire children’s brains to seek immediate gratification.

Physicians, behavioral experts, educators, child advocates and even tech developers are voicing concerns about too much screen time. Some Silicon Valley tech executives have gone so far as to ban technology use by their own children.

We all understand technology is here to stay and those neat gadgets and tools enhance our lives in numerous ways. I know I would be lost, literally, without my GPS and appointment reminder.

Effectively harnessing the influence of technology and balancing its use with hands-on, real-world and personal interactions are keys to turning a potential negative into a proven positive.

For example, technology in the classroom is an effective tool when combined with interactive exercises developed by creative, innovative teachers. And playing a video game at home can be relaxing and fun as long as it’s balanced with personal interactions, such as playing softball with friends and board games with the family.

We believe it’s important for families to understand about the dangers of unbridled technology use so they can promote healthy and safe habits for their children.

We want our students to know about the latest scientific evidence and the potential negative impact of poor tech habits so they are equipped to make good choices in using devices.

Making wise choices and developing healthy habits are parts of an array of social-emotional behaviors that are proven to help students succeed in school and later in college, on the job and in life. Young people who apply healthy and mature social-emotional behaviors to tech management are more likely to use good judgment and exercise self-discipline in the content they share, the sites they visit and the time they spend on devices scrolling, texting, gaming, posting and learning.

Most children function better within a structured environment and can understand a parent’s responsibility to monitor screen time usage and social media to ensure the child’s well-being. Parents who want to take the opportunity to open a discussion about healthy screen habits when giving a tech gift can find tools and tips at www.screenagersmovie.com. The website is related to an award-winning film, “Screenagers: Growing Up in the Digital Age,” created by physician and filmmaker Dr. Delaney Ruston.

Practical ideas from Dr. Ruston include having weekly short, calm conversations with your family about technology and establishing times when tech is out of sight to help children focus and develop self-control. A weekly blog, Tech Talk Tuesday, available on the website, offers good discussion starters.

Don’t be surprised to find that following a structure that minimizes multi-tasking and devotes focused time to homework and personal interactions will free up time for unhindered enjoyment of favorite tech gadgets.

The Education Foundation of Sarasota County team wishes you and yours a joyful holiday season.

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The fall season brings a minor but welcome drop in temperature to our area, but it also brings an unwelcome anxiety spike for many high school students.

In recent conversations with a couple of our professional partners, we shared our observations that more students seem to be experiencing higher levels of anxiety this fall than in previous years.

It’s no wonder that high school seniors, in particular, exhibit signs of increased stress. After all, they are preparing for a big life change in moving from a familiar high school campus to the adult world. Other factors contribute to pressures piling up on these students, and unfortunately, some worries, such as the nuances triggered by their social relationships, aren’t completely within parents’ and teachers’ ability to resolve.

But what can adults who care about our stressed-out students do to alleviate some of those other pressure points?

Consulting with my friendly experts, we drew up a list of frequent stress triggers and tips for helping students and their families cope during the senior stress season and emerge in good health—physically, mentally and emotionally.

1. Recognize that pressure, often inadvertent, comes from parents, peers, counselors, teachers and even students’ expectations of themselves. Parents can lighten the pressure by actively encouraging and empowering students through the process.

2. Watch for red flags in behaviors that signal help is needed for students in these and similar situations: a student from a high-achieving family who’s afraid he’ll “let down” his family if he isn’t accepted into the “right” college; a student who fears her university-bound friends will leave her behind if she goes to technical college; and the student who’s not sleeping because he’s working a part-time job, volunteering in the community and trying to earn top grades to qualify for a scholarship.

3. Be mindful of and help your student prepare for deadlines. The college application deadline was Nov. 1 for the University of Florida and Florida State University. Upcoming deadlines are Nov. 15 and Jan. 1 for other colleges, and some, including State College of Florida and University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, have rolling admission. The application period opened Oct. 1 for FAFSA and Bright Futures Scholarships—both important sources of free funds for postsecondary education, and no funds will be awarded if the student doesn’t apply.

4. Assist with completing complex applications. The college admission process has grown more complex, time-consuming and individualized per institution. There is no “one” template that can be used for every application, and it is easy to be denied admission because a custom requirement was overlooked. Parents who don’t feel qualified to provide direct assistance can direct their students to resources at schools, such as the Student Success Centers at Riverview High School and North Port High School, the College Resource Center at Booker High School or the Rotary Futures Center at Venice High School just to name a few.

5. Help students focus and prioritize postsecondary options. It’s tempting to say, “The world is your oyster” and advise a young adult to explore all opportunities. But it takes a lot of time to complete applications for college, job training programs, financial aid and scholarships, and the senior year of high school is when students need to zero in on short lists. By talking with students, parents can help them figure out what’s most important for their postsecondary education. If college is their choice, what will make a certain college a good fit? Academic reputation? Social life? Size of campus? Internships? Study-abroad programs?

6. Most importantly, keep open the lines of communication. Students are vulnerable to internalizing stress until anxiety builds to unhealthy levels and they shut down. Parents can increase their students’ self-confidence with encouraging assurances such as: “I know you’re giving it your best.” “We’re here for you.” “You’ve got this.” “Just breathe.”

For additional information on tips and checklists, visit LaunchYourPlan.com.

Special acknowledgment to Peni Riedinger and Debra Landesberg for contributing to this article.

Lately, my mind has wandered to pondering the status of “middles” in our world, e.g., the middle class, middle management, middle income workers, middle children, reliable average citizens and the great sea populated by moderates and the mainstream.

It seems that, at every turn, our attention is demanded by extremes—the super-achievers and the low-performers at work, in sports, schools, social settings, entertainment—and spread too thin to focus equitably on the consistent average.

Our lingo demonstrates the trend. It seems that hearing “job well done” for showing up and competently carrying out a task isn’t an adequate accolade. Now everyone has to be a “rock star” to feel the love.

I have personal experience with this. When our household grew to three kids, my husband and I immediately grasped that we were outnumbered 3:2. Where were a third set of hands and extra pair of eyes when we needed them?

When children outnumber parents, multiple conflicts present themselves. As hard as we tried to give our children equal attention, we had to choose and rotate whose parent-teacher conference, school open house, ball game and concert to attend.

I recall many times being thankful for the child who was compliant, responsible, quiet and mannered when my attention and support were directed to the child who had the greater need at the time.

Then, one day, it occurred to me to wonder what I might have missed because of my middle child’s minimal demands. Had I unintentionally overlooked her needs or failed to support her to the best of my abilities because I was focused on the others?

It was a wake-up call to be more intentional in interacting with each of my children, no matter the demands or lack thereof. Sure enough, I learned the demands were there, just quietly hidden and tucked away in a compliant nature.

Thankfully, our second-born child is a well-adjusted young adult and doesn’t exhibit any signs of feeling overlooked. But the experience has parallels to the waning voices of those in the middle class and mainstream, the solid citizens and the average students.

How does this relate to the work of the Education Foundation?

All children have needs, whether the setting is in a large family, a team on the field, or a school classroom. In our noble quest to provide equitable support to each and every student, as we continue encouraging those who are high achievers and low performers, do we also need to pause and ask ourselves how we are carrying out our responsibility to those in the middle? Are we unintentionally overlooking the needs of the quiet, average student?

Is it possible that the student in the middle is fading into the background? Do we find that we save our fanfare for students at the extremes and give token recognition to students who fall squarely in the middle, those who habitually turn in their homework and are punctual, respectful, and compliant?

This is not to suggest that support for any child should be diminished to help another child. Rather, while focusing (appropriately) on the bottom 25 percent quartile and our top-performing gifted and talented students, we want to ensure that we aren’t missing the mark when it comes to helping the 65 percent of students in the middle who cause the least disruption and require the least intervention but who might give us the highest return with slightly more attention.

It can be challenging to examine the inadvertent results of our actions, especially when our intentions are good. But if we reframe our thinking about what equitable support means, perhaps we can change the paradigm from “equity for all students” to “equitable support for each and every child.”

Take a walk with me down memory lane to 1988.

George H.W. Bush was elected as the 41st president. Big with Tom Hanks and Die Hard with Bruce Willis were hit movies. The Dell Computer Corp. was incorporated. The Washington Redskins won the Super Bowl. Guns N’ Roses “Sweet Child o’ Mine” played on the radio. The term “World Wide Web” made its way into conversation. Cameras required film. A portable cell phone cost $2,500 and stood 10 inches tall. The big hair look was in for women and an unfortunate number of men sported the mullet style.

In Sarasota, young comedian Jay Leno performed at the Van Wezel. The Sarasota Babe Ruth Little League All-Stars went to the World Series. And private citizen Shirley Ritchey, a woman with a strong will and stronger passion for public education, gathered a group of Sarasota-area business leaders and educators to lay the groundwork for an independent organization dedicated to supporting programs and services to benefit students and teachers of Sarasota County Schools.

The Education Foundation of Sarasota County, as we know it today, traces its beginning to this grassroots effort led by Shirley and joined by leading citizens who served with commitment over the years.

Thanks to the continuing involvement of Shirley and early board members, the Education Foundation today is a nonprofit organization with the personality of a big supportive family that is celebrating our 30th anniversary year by honoring the past while looking to the future.

Since its inception, the Foundation provided programs and services that support and enrich the learning experience for students and teachers in our district. Here are a few highlights of how we have invested in our district over the first three decades:

The Foundation held the first teacher recognition event in 1989. We produced Academic Olympics in 1992 and Sarasota Thinks Festival in 1995. Our first annual “Evening of Excellence” was held in 1996. “Building Blocks for Success” grants were awarded in 1999. In 2003 we began a five-year literacy partnership with the Junior League. In 2009 we marked the 20th year of awarding “Edge of Excellence” classroom grants. We funded the first digital learning lab at Laurel Civic Association in 2013 and the first annual Hackathon was held in 2016.

And this year our College, Career, Life Readiness Initiative is taking off with the opening of new Student Success Centers, staffed by dedicated College Career Advisors provided by the Education Foundation, at North Port High School and Riverview High School.

With the passing of time we are glad to see some things fade—the mullet hairstyle, for one—and nostalgic for others. Along the way, we have said sad farewells to beloved friends and supporters, most recently James Ritchey, the husband and stalwart supporter of our founder, Shirley Ritchey.

As we honor the past with pride and respect, we are preparing toasts to a bright future for the Education Foundation and our students and teachers.

Change is inevitable and it seems fitting this anniversary falls at a time that arguably is the Education Foundation’s most transformative period since our founders experienced the thrill of beginning something important.

The Education Foundation’s many past accomplishments have been possible through the ongoing support of community and philanthropic partners, the cooperation of district leaders and the generosity of corporate and individual donors.

We continue to count on invaluable community backing as we adapt programs and services to meet the needs of a changing world and prepare our students to succeed in their own future plans.

It’s back to school time! When you hear that phrase, does it conjure up the daily school routines with which you and your family have become accustomed? Wake up. Make lunch. Drop off. Pick up. Do homework. Repeat. Do you find yourself already counting down to winter break or does the routine of school make things a little more structured for the household?

Before another year of school routines becomes the family norm, perhaps this is an ideal time to press pause on the autopilot button and push the lever of imagination and dialogue about the exciting, stimulating learning experiences we want for our children.

We live in a world that is changing at an accelerated rate. As I’ve stated before, it’s widely acknowledged that we are living in monumental transitory times. What will the world of tomorrow hold? Why does it matter? Why should we care?

The precious small children who are beginning kindergarten this school year will graduate high school in 2031 and they will be eligible to retire in 2080. That will be just 20 years from the dawn of the 22nd century.

How many of us can think that far ahead, much less plan? How can we reimagine schools for our future leaders when it’s difficult to imagine what a tomorrow that far in advance will look like?

It’s a stretch for many of us, but it is our duty to try, and here’s why: Throughout history, significant culture change has taken place when driven by critical communal needs.

The fact is that we are two decades into the 21st century but many of our institutions, including the interdependent systems of education and industry, were designed around the needs of earlier centuries.

Leaders from all sectors are sounding the alarm that America will lose its competitive advantage and young adults will find limited pathways for upward social and economic mobility without a concerted movement to equip students with skills to be innovators.

The Education Foundation, through its innovative initiatives, is among a growing number of forward-thinking leaders and institutions modeling the 21st century skills that we want our students to emulate:

  • Forming new collaborations among industry and sectors;
  • Taking calculated risks by putting ambitious, untried plans into motion;
  • Unlocking creative capacities to solve problems in unconventional ways;
  • Communicating across disciplines and sectors; and
  • Sharing and analyzing information about results of initiatives.

A. J. Juliani, an educator and well-known author of books about innovative teaching, said: “Our job is not to prepare students for something. Our job is to help students prepare themselves for anything.”

Our students deserve the opportunity to reimagine their aspirations and understand that achieving success in the future will look different from their parents’ experiences. As the organization exclusively dedicated to Sarasota County public education, the Education Foundation is poised to take the role of collaborative convener in working with a cross-section of the community including Sarasota County Schools leadership, youth-serving organizations, business professionals, and foundations that support educational initiatives.

Together, we will need to prepare our students with a life readiness mindset that will empower them for success in a future that promises to be anything but routine.

From a philosophical viewpoint, is a win a win, no matter how you played? At what point, if any, are you justified to bend the rules or even break them to ensure a victory? As long as performance is achieved, does the methodology matter? How does one wrestle with moral or ethical dilemmas such as these, and by what means do we reconcile them?

One of the unique characteristics of humanity is that we are conscious beings. As such, we have the ability to look inward and tap our individual principles and values when determining right versus wrong. We also can be influenced by outward pressures such as peers, performance evaluations or even market forces that outweigh our internal checks and balances, thus creating internal conflict.

In either case, the defining qualities of a person’s character will be tested. And, as most of us will agree, character matters.

A recent survey from the Society for Human Resource Management found employers care more about soft skills such as integrity, reliability and teamwork than they do technical abilities. In fact, 87 percent of employers in this survey ranked integrity as one of the most important qualities when seeking new job candidates. Integrity goes beyond being honest, fair, polite and respectful. It is also reflective of one’s ability to make tough ethical decisions. In short, it is one’s character in action.

Our children learn by the actions we take. The adage “walk the walk, not just talk the talk” rings true. We all have the capacity to be role models for the generations that follow, and so we have an incumbent responsibility for our moral compass to shine brightly.

History has given us notable examples of those who have led lives undergirded by a bedrock of principles, a strong moral compass and an innate ability to build consensus and achieve a shared vision. Abraham Lincoln inspired a nation when he delivered the Gettysburg Address, leading to the eventual abolishment of slavery, while Winston Churchill inspired the free nations to continue their fight against the tyranny of Hitler during the darkest hours of World War II.

While we don’t all need to aspire to the leadership levels of Lincoln or Churchill, we should give considerate thought and pregnant pause before we, as adults, speak or act. Why? Our children are watching, employers are hiring and character matters.

Do you remember your summer vacations when you were a child?

For many of us GenXers or Baby Boomers, a summer vacation was piling in the family station wagon and driving across the state to visit Grandma or Aunt Sally.  Cousins would play outside together until darkness crept in while parents sat around telling embellished stories from their own childhood memories. Taking a trip to Disney World was a big deal so families planned and saved to make that trip, which seemed like it was to the other side of the world, when in fact, it was only a 2-hour drive from home.

A lot has changed since then. Our world that once seemed so big is now interconnected in ways that have made it quite small—or as Thomas Friedman described, flat. In this 21stcentury world in which we live, global events are watched in real time by millions of people (Meghan and Harry), world currency has become digitized, and the balance of international relations demand our understanding of world cultures.

The Education Foundation, through its innovative initiatives, is among a growing number of forward-thinking leaders and institutions modeling the 21st century skills that we want our students to emulate:

•               forming new collaborative partnerships;

•                taking calculated risks by putting ambitious, untried plans into motion;

•                unlocking creative capacities to solve problems in unconventional ways;

•                communicating across disciplines, sectors and cultures; and

•                sharing and analyzing the impact of initiatives.

For these reasons and more, we are excited to send three Sarasota County educators on an all-expenses paid global professional development experience this summer. Our inaugural team, who hail from Phillippi Shores Elementary, an International Baccalaureate school, will be traveling to South Africa as part of our Ignite Education program in support of our mission to enhance the potential of students, promote excellence in teaching and inspire innovation in education.

The Education Foundation of Sarasota County has partnered with Good Work Foundation, a non-governmental association in South Africa, for this unique teaching and learning opportunity. Since its founding in 2006, GWF has worked to provide digital learning centers and access to world-class education to rural African learners where mining, agriculture and tourism (home to Kruger National Park) drive its’ local economy.

While these two organizations are oceans apart, we share a passionate commitment to build relations with and amongst teachers, students and communities.

The Sarasota County educators will spend three weeks in South Africa, working alongside teachers in one of the digital learning campuses created by GWF to experience firsthand how 21st-century skills are transforming a rural, South African village. Our educators will also serve as master teachers and mentors, providing the GWF “facilitators” compulsory skills such as designing lesson plans, providing differentiated instruction and teaching English as a second language in addition to sharing proven classroom management techniques. Our educators will be both student and teacher. As they empower these facilitators with effective skills, they will also witness the joy of learning through the eyes of young village students who highly value the gift of an education. Upon returning from South Africa, these teachers will apply this newfound perspective and better understanding of global cultures with the Phillippi Shores school community.

We believe this global professional development opportunity is a worthwhile investment that will strengthen our teachers’ capacities and in ways we don’t yet realize. We anticipate these two schools, while worlds apart, will create lasting relationships that will ignite education for both communities of students and teachers.

A lot has changed since the summer vacations when I was a child. I guess Disney had it right all along, “it’s a small world after all.”

The Education Foundation of Sarasota County believes that enriching the educational experiences available to Sarasota County students, teachers and schools strengthens all factors of the community and transforms lives.

Central to our work is a shared view that success is not limited to one route per lifetime. Rather, success is achieved when students can proficiently develop and complete their own viable plan for life after high school, and they know that learning does not end with a diploma but is essential to adapt and thrive in a world constantly in flux.

Whether the plan is attending and completing traditional university or technical college, earning a trade certification, directly applying 21st century skills training in a career-path job, or pursuing multiple options, we believe the number of students prepared to complete their personalized plans will grow as our honed approach is imbedded.

Our shared vision is to see more graduates step confidently onto the next stage of their life journey– qualified, prepared and motivated to succeed in college, career and life.

Currently, the gap is wide between the goal and the reality. Too many students graduate without a plan or the know-how to develop a plan for the next step after receiving a high school diploma. Too few Sarasota County students graduate with the necessary coursework and life skills to succeed in college and/or a vocation.

In response to these needs, the Education Foundation is working closely with our district to open and staff school-based career-and-college centers, called Student Success Centers, to supplement and enhance the personalized guidance of a one-on-one school-based counselor.

Beginning in August, the Education Foundation will have two fully operational Student Success Centers located at North Port High School and Riverview High School. These centers, which are an extension of the Education Foundation and will be staffed and supported by us, will offer resources to improve students’ readiness for college, career and life. Resources include personal advising, writing skills workshops, financial literacy courses, resume/interviewing skills classes and leadership development, just to name a few.

We have developed a new comprehensive website, LaunchYourPlan.com, that offers students access to postsecondary planning information in the format that is most familiar to digital natives. From their phone or laptop, students and parents easily can navigate the website and explore topics including year-by-year checklists for high school students, scholarship opportunities and more.

It is our duty, as an educational thought leader, to explain and advocate for a readiness mindset with the public and to help convey its meaning and importance. Students deserve the opportunity to reimagine their aspirations and understand that achieving success in the 21st century will look different from their parents’ experience.

We will continue to seek input from our community as we hone our approach, and we invite anyone interested in supporting this vision to contact us. We are assembling a volunteer corps to help strengthen our work and we need many hands helping us accomplish this audacious goal. When we succeed, we expect that more Sarasota County students will be ready and motivated to advance from high school onto a postsecondary pathway, fully prepared to participate in our society’s economic and cultural prosperity.

When parents and educators interact with youngsters in our charge, our default instinct is to be the teacher, to instruct them and show them the way. In truth, our children can teach us a lot. With unfettered passion, striking bravado and zealous tenacity, students are rallying for their voices to be heard in the wake of the recent tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The question is: Are we truly listening?

The very essence of being an effective communicator begins with listening. The importance of intentionally listening, being fully present and seeking to understand cannot be overstated. It is much easier to want others to understand us than it is to understand others, and our children are teaching us important lessons we should note.

Stephen Covey highlights one of the seven habits of highly effective people: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” With unifying strength, students are imploring us to be bastions of change and to heed the call of necessary action. It has been awe-inspiring to hear the voices of our children speak with such voluminous transparency and raw veracity, knowing that pats on the back will not suffice or deter them.

With increasing noise, our world often seems chaotic. Polarized conversations are alienating our country and leaving people feeling disenfranchised. Watching these students galvanize a horrific tragedy into productive change is remarkable and inspiring. We can learn a lot from them.

At the very least, we adults would do well to recognize the social-emotional skill of perspective taking. Ellen Galinsky, author of Mind in the Making, teaches us how this skill is developed over time. Through research conducted at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it has been found that a special part of the brain’s cortex—where complex thinking takes place—lights up when people think about the thoughts of others. Cognitive flexibility helps us change the focus from self to others and using inhibitory control allows us to restrain our own thoughts for the benefit of understanding others.

Perspective taking is hard work that draws upon empathy and understanding. Now, more than ever before, we adults should be utilizing this skill. Our children have much to say. They will teach us what they need to know if we take the time to listen.

Winston Churchill said: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” It is time to for us to show the same level of courage as our children and really listen.

IMG_0342The 2018 Winter Olympics is scheduled to begin this week with more than 90 countries sending its athletes to compete against the world’s best. It will be a time when we, as Americans, unify as a country while enthusiastically cheering our nation’s athletes who have spent countless hours and years of sacrifice for this pinnacle experience. It is no secret the United States, more than any other country, is a dominant Olympic contender as evidenced by our record-setting medals. Listening to the national anthem play repeatedly as American athletes don gold medals serves as a source of national pride affirming our country’s strength.

With the Olympics upon us, this may serve as an opportune yet sobering time to compare the United States’ performance in education. Admittedly, rankings never reveal the whole story but they can help us watch for trends and identify areas for us to focus. One of the most referenced international ranking reports is the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which every three years measures reading ability, math and science literacy in countries around the world.

The most recent report, published in 2015, shows the United States above the OECD average in reading and science and below the average in math. According to OECD PISA 2015, a score difference of 30 points is the equivalent of one year of formal schooling. Singapore tops all three performance areas with a 535 reading score compared to a 497 U.S. score; science is a 556 to 496 comparison and Singapore’s math score tops 564 compared to the U.S. at 470. Put another way, the United States ranks 24th in reading, 25th in science, and 40th in math when compared to the more than 70 countries that participate in this assessment. If PISA garnered as much attention as the Olympics, this would prompt a national outcry. Yet, hope is not lost.

The Sarasota community is doing much to improve student achievement by recognizing the responsibility is shared between all of us and is not just for our schools and teachers to bear. It has been inspiring to witness the resounding support students and families receive from the multitude of invested community partners engaged in innovative pilot programs to comprehensive literacy initiatives and everything in between. Our community has a proclivity to invest in a better tomorrow by making sound investments in schools today.

If you’ve not yet joined the conversation and want to share your wisdom and talents, we welcome the community conversation. Greater alignment still is needed and, together, we can improve the performance of all Team USA students. I can hear the national anthem now…