Now in her tenth year as superintendent of Collier County Public Schools, Kamela Patton, PhD, has spent the last year tackling one of her biggest obstacles to date. In response to COVID-19, she sprang into action with her team to implement in-school and virtual programs, creating broad educational opportunities for all students. This is no small feat, given that Collier County covers an area roughly the size of Delaware. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Patton has stayed in constant communication with colleagues in the school district (teachers and administrators alike), government agencies, and community-based organizations. But she is not all business all the time.
NI: How are Collier County Public Schools (CCPS) making it all work during the pandemic?
Patton: Obviously, the entire way we are delivering education has changed. We now have three options. Just under 80 percent of our students are back in school, and it looks very different. Everybody’s wearing masks. Desks are spread wall-to-wall to maximize space. Students eat 6 feet apart. The other 20 percent are at home on a synchronous line called Classroom Connect. [There are also some] in eCollier Academy, a full virtual school. Based on 2020 end-of-year CCPS survey data, the number of in-school students is projected to go to 88 percent for the January through May 2021 period.
What have been your most significant contributions since coming to CCPS?
I’m very proud of our graduation rate, which is now 91.9 percent, compared to 72.5 percent when I started in June 2011. Our students with disabilities graduation rate is up to 84.8 percent. The migrant student graduation rate has gone from 53 percent to 88.1 percent. In terms of academic achievement, we’ve gone from being thirty-third to tied for fifth out of 67 Florida counties. These are big needles to move. They help improve kids’ lives and, in turn, that helps the economy. Our schools are now among the few three-year A-rated school districts in the state. Our other major focus has been on the 30 percent who do not go to college. We communicate that we need cosmetologists, welders, electricians, and others. We’re making sure our kids know about the two technical colleges [that are] local; they provide job training, costs are low, and financial aid is available. It’s part of our shift to career readiness. We want all students to end up in a career, not just a job. A high school diploma is a game changer.
What are some specific changes you’ve made?
We’ve done a lot with STEAM: science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. We now have engineering entrepreneurship in all the middle and high schools. We’ve started NAF academies in medical, finance, hospitality, tourism, and others. We’re the only school system in the country that offers Cambridge at all levels. Grad walks, academic career signing days, and a shift to career readiness are recent additions. There have been enhancements to our two technical colleges, Lorenzo Walker Technical College and iTech. Teachers are moving mountains as we speak.
What do you think education will look like in the future?
Technology will provide more opportunities for self-directed learning. There’s growing equity because every kid now has a laptop and internet, with CCPS-provided hot spots, if needed. If you’re sick or away, you can keep up. eCollier Academy is an all-day, distinct, local, virtual school, providing flexible instruction so students can work at their own pace.
What do you do for fun outside of work?
I love to travel and go RVing. I love photography. I have a scooter and explore the back roads of Naples. I love going to concerts. After graduating from Messiah College [now University], I worked for the Bee Gees for two years, going on world and U.S. tours with them. I love unique experiences like trapezing, tandem parachuting, and dog-sledding on a glacier. That’s what makes life fun.
Who do you look to for inspiration?
Abraham Lincoln for perseverance and Thomas Jefferson for strength. Abraham Lincoln’s first love died, he lost an election, but he persevered. And Jefferson said, “In matters of style, run with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.” You have to be strong enough to stand like a rock when you know it’s the absolute right thing to do.