Students Help Students Get Innovative at Sarasota County Schools

The Venice High School students sitting at their desks during a special presentation on November 7 looked just about how you’d expect a room of teenagers to look at 7:45 a.m. Chins cradled in hands on desktops, faces void of emotion, listening politely but without much engagement. Fast-forward 20 minutes and those same students are electric with excitement, laughing, smiling, engaged. What changed? The students were seeing their newly remodeled Intensive Language Arts (ILA) classrooms for the very first time.

Last week, Sarasota County Schools unveiled six redesigned ILA classrooms created and implemented through a partnership with Ringling College of Art and Design, Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation, and Gulf Coast Community Foundation. The innovative classrooms are part of a larger effort to transform the learning experience for ILA students by improving content delivery, student engagement, and teacher retention.

Students are enrolled in ILA after scoring low on the English Language Arts portion of their Florida Standards Assessments (FSA). These are students who historically have been left behind and often struggle to graduate high school. The district is focused on helping them embrace a growth mindset, providing extra support, and investing in creative opportunities to improve so they can graduate.

Venice was one of three schools whose ILA classrooms received full makeovers. Riverview and Booker were the other two pilot schools. The intent, as one Venice High ILA teacher told her students at the ribbon-cutting, is to “celebrate you, honor you, and inspire you.” And inspire they did.

The classrooms feature stylish mobile desks for enhanced flexibility. An entire wall is covered by a bold, colorful mural of diverse world icons in activism, art, and education—think Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, Black Panther writer-director Ryan Coogler, and Pakistani female-education activist Malala. The Venice classrooms received ”oohs” and “aahs” from students as they laid eyes on their new learning space for the first time. Many immediately jumped into the seats of their new desks, moving them into clusters that will soon foster teamwork and collaboration that was missing from their old classes.

The classroom environment was painstakingly designed by students at Ringling College of Art and Design (RCAD)—some of whom might have benefitted themselves from the type of classroom they were helping to create. “Design students often have reading challenges,” said Barbara Marini, Interior Design Department Head at RCAD. “They’re right-brained, they’re creative, and they don’t take tests well, so they could really relate to these students.” The Ringling College students worked directly with high school students and their teachers to reimagine the classroom space.

The classroom pilot was funded by grants from Barancik Foundation and Gulf Coast Community Foundation. But while three schools have received classroom makeovers so far, they are part of a larger effort to innovate ILA instruction and benefit students and teachers across the district. In October, for example, students from Booker, Riverview, Sarasota, North Port, and Venice high schools received a tablet or laptop as an incentive gift in recognition of meeting their English Language Arts graduation requirements. Meanwhile, all 22 ILA teachers have received professional development and collaboration opportunities, as well as access to incentive bonuses. The idea is to help change the role of ILA teacher into a highly sought literacy expert who can provide support to teachers in other content areas who work with struggling readers.

“’Transformational’ is the only word I can use to describe the difference this grant has made to our students, their parents, their teachers, and our schools,” said Dr. Laura Kingsley, chief academic officer/assistant superintendent of Sarasota County Schools. “It will impact how we imagine what’s possible in the future.”