Leading Nassau County’s A-Rated School District

November 8, 2017

Dr. Kathy BurnsNovember is often a time of reflection, a time when we consider the people we are thankful for and the things that we are grateful to have such as a home, a job, and good health. The Nassau County Economic Development counts many things for which to be thankful and among those is the a-rated Nassau County School District, currently ranked seventh in the state of Florida with only A and B-rated schools. The Nassau County (Florida) School District is accredited district-wide through AdvanceED as determined in the most recent Quality Assurance Review in May of 2016.  Nassau was one of the first three districts in the state to be awarded district-wide accreditation through the current process.
November of 2017 marks the one year anniversary for Dr. Kathy Burns as Superintendent of the Nassau County School District. Dr. Burns succeeded Dr. John Ruis, who retired after 24 years of service.
Dr. Burns reflected upon her tenure, thus far. “I am particularly proud of the hundreds of dedicated teachers and staff throughout our district, who work every day for the success of our students and the improvement of our schools. We have a county and community that support our local schools, as well as, our school district at every level,” said Burns.
During her initial months as superintendent, Burns initiated an ‘Action Plan for Improvement’ for every school, as well as, the district. Over the summer months, Burns implemented the district’s first teacher convocation, which brought together all teachers during school year pre-planning. She said the event was a positive and encouraging way to kick-off the new, school year. In addition to the convocation, a celebration was held for support personnel, who serve as a crucial role in the district’s success.
Summertime served as an opportunity for students to participate in a technology internship. District-wide Burns has implemented technology improvements and created a district mentoring program for every school.
The Nassau County School District kicked off the school year with the grand opening of Wildlight Elementary School, the county’s newest school and the first to be located in the growing Wildlight community.   

Dr. Burns at podiumDays before the official community grand opening event, Scott Hodges, Principal of Wildlight Elementary said, “It’s very exciting and I am honored to be the principal. The parents and teachers all seem very happy and impressed with the facility.” As the principal of a new school, Hodges said he and the teachers are demanding excellence from the beginning. “My goal is to create a culture of excellence for our students and our teachers, and we have a clean slate in which to do that.”
Wildlight Elementary, along with several other schools in Nassau County, are creating robotics clubs and competition teams to create a fun environment where students can apply concepts learned in the classroom to real-world applications. Robotics is made possible through funding provided by the Nassau Education Foundation, a local nonprofit, whose mission is to provide educational grants to teachers and administrators across Nassau County. Funding for the robotics initiative is a joint effort between the Nassau Education Foundation, the Consortium of Florida Education Foundations and Rayonier.
“It’s a great opportunity for the students to extend what they learn in the classroom with engineering and technology,” said Hodges. “It will give them an opportunity to use their critical thinking skills and work together as a team in ways they don’t always get to do in class. It’s going to benefit them in a lot of ways.”
Schools district-wide have had an emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and have found creative ways to integrate science into the arts. Hodges said that there has been a more intentional focus by marrying the two disciplines.
“We’re integrating science into the reading curriculum with more nonfiction and purpose-driven passages with a science, engineering or mathematics emphasis,” he said. “In the real world everything is integrated, it’s not isolated, so it’s a more efficient teaching method and its training students to solve real-world problems more effectively.”
Hodges at podiumHodges spoke with excitement when discussing the team at Wildlight Elementary. “We are fortunate to have assembled a talented, positive team of educators who are child-centered and have embraced the diversity of our campus and students.” The school has six special needs classes and three distinct programs that are unique to Nassau County schools. “Our traditional-education students work to integrate those students with exceptional needs into what they are doing and into school life, and I think it’s a positive experience for all students.”
The traditional classroom has evolved over the past few decades to incorporate new technology, and according to Hodges, the facilities at Wildlight Elementary match up to the developmental levels of all students. “We have an awesome facility with classrooms and a playground that are student-centered and designed around students,” he said.
It is important to note that the fifth grade students in Nassau County are second in the state in reading, math, and science based on the Florida Standards Assessment
Workforce development is a critical piece of the recruitment efforts for economic development organizations across the country and as Burns looks to her future goals her priorities mirror the path of career development.  She hopes to develop career shadowing opportunities for students as early as middle school, create a job training program for adult students with disabilities, and expand career and technical training opportunities.
VyStar Credit Union has a successful fully-operational branch at West Nassau High School and is scheduled to open a branch at Yulee High School next year with a branch at Fernandina Beach High School scheduled to open the following year. The branch allows student-workers to learn managerial and finance skills, while affording all students the opportunity to begin a path to financial success by learning the importance of money management and saving for their future.
Two of the county’s largest manufacturers, WestRock and Rayonier Advanced Materials, play a key role in the National Manufacturing Day, a national event held every October to help shed a light on the role manufacturing plays in the world’s economy, job opportunities and the importance of technical skills. Burns would like to see the event grow as it allows students to explore job opportunities locally.
“We (the Nassau County Economic Development Board) are committed to helping bridge the gap between education and the business community, thus strengthening our workforce, “ said Laura DiBella, Executive Director for the NCEDB.
“Sherri Mitchell is the newest member of our team and will serve a vital role in bringing businesses, educators and students together. We also would like to see National Manufacturing Day become one of the county’s most celebrated events.”
Burns noted that 355 middle school students earned digital tools certification last school year and the district’s Future Business Leaders of America chapter recognized a national winner.
A teacher at heart, Burns has committed to increasing student performance district-wide. Looking internally, Burns hopes to develop a three-five year strategic/action plan for the district and improve and enhance the district’s customer service.
Technology is rapidly changing and to compete in the workforce students must be adept at all forms of technology.  Burns said she hopes to use technology to support teaching and learning at every level. “Education must drive technology,” said Burns. Similar to the district’s integration of STEM into reading lessons, she hopes to adopt and create more blended learning opportunities for the students.
Burns expressed her gratefulness for the folks across our county who are actively engaged with education in our community and explained there are many ways to get involved.  She would love to see more engagement with the business community through career training opportunities and classroom visits to educate students about various careers and the type of training to follow that path. Burns encourages the community to join PTOs, school advisory councils or the district’s State of the Schools Council. Quite simply, Burns said, “volunteer”.

Photo Credit: Ken Morselander, Colaboo Productions


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