It’s About Hands-On Experience
Written by Timothy Jacobs, Jacobs Writing Consultants
Graduation day is a time to reflect. It is a time to plan forward, to move ahead, and embrace the universe at your feet. Whether the next step is further education, travel or entering the entrepreneurial world, it is the day where ‘good-byes’ and ‘good lucks’ are exchanged with a hug. As the graduating crowd dissipates, summer fun begins, except for Nelson Stephenson.
Things Fall Into Place in Cape Coral
Once graduation is over, Stephenson, Superintendent of the City of Cape Coral Municipal Charter School Authority, is spending his summer planning the upcoming school year. “I love my job,” he says with a smile. When it came to landing this position, Stephenson says, “things just kind of fell into place.” He was employed with the Collier school system when he took a position with another school two counties north of Collier. To help cut the commute time down, he and his wife, Rosica, decided to move to Cape Coral. “There is still a small town kind of feel to the place.”
Not too long after they moved, a posting caught his attention for Superintendent of a Charter School and he applied. After an interview and selection process, he was hired. The Cape, says Stephenson “it’s a growing place, and it’s an affordable, livable place.” Living in Sandoval, the Stephenson’s and their small children, Nicholas age 5 and Sophie age 3, enjoy their neighborhood and all that the Cape has to offer for a growing family. He also enjoys his time being involved with the leadership program through the Cape Coral Chamber of Commerce.
He was quick to point out the difference from being in the Collier school system versus being with the Charter school. “I went from working with fifty thousand students down to thirty-three hundred students.”
What attracted him to the job was the “possibility to accomplish things quicker,” he says in a very enthusiastic tone. “They already had an amazing staff in place and a lot of support from the community. I saw the growth potential and now there’s a waiting list of 500 plus students.”
Getting Into Education
Stephenson is a native to Southwest Florida having been raised in Naples and spending most of his adult life there. He recalled growing up when Naples was still a small town. “I lived two miles from the YMCA and we used to ride our bikes there and back on Airport Pulling Lane, but now it’s six lanes.” Like any place, growth is both bad and good, and Stephenson has seen both in his hometown, but growth won’t make him leave. “I enjoyed growing up in Southwest Florida, that’s why I don’t want to leave here.”
He attended Naples High School, then went on to Florida International, Western Carolina University, and Florida Gulf Coast. Although being a superintendent of a charter school was not his first choice of career. “I wanted to be a City Manager when I grew up,” he says. “I love politics and all things related to government.”
He earned his first master’s degree in Public Administration and, while working toward his second master’s degree, he was offered a teaching position at Florida Southwest. “Long story short,” says Stephenson, “I got into the teaching field and moved up to administration, along with getting my second degree.”
One of the perks of being with the charter school is Stephenson gets to interact a lot with the community of Cape Coral. “Being chartered with the city of Cape Coral, I’m very involved with the people on the city council, the mayor and the city manager.”
He also likes to point out that City of Cape Coral Municipal Charter System is one of the few municipal charter schools in the state that is backed by the city but is non-profit. “We don’t get any more money than the students that attend public schools. In fact, we get less. This is based on an inequity in the capital dollars sharing that public schools currently have as an option. This means that we are doing more with less.”
The biggest challenge facing Stephenson and his administration is the growth of the community and the number of students that want to attend the school. Ten years ago, the student count was fifty, today it’s over 3,300. To deal with this challenge, Stephenson has spent the past year “developing the infrastructure, policies and procedures that have to happen so we can grow,” he explained. “Managing the growth, while trying to meet the needs of parents trying to get their children in is a fine line.” It is a balancing act of trying to grow, but not so fast that all the good things fall apart.
He mentioned that all four schools are at maximum capacity, “so what do we do moving forward is the question.” One thing is that Stephenson plans on becoming more involved. “Throughout my life,” he says, “I’ve been too busy to be involved, but this job is a perfect marriage for being involved with the community.”
It is not as simple as build a new school on the campus or bringing in more portables. Stephenson feels that it’s more important to plan, grow slowly, and have an outlook for the long-term future of the school.
The Oasis High School and the other charter schools in the system are dedicated to keeping programs hands-on for the students. Students get to spend time in the “medical field, or at the firehouse, or the police station. This program is to give them a wide range of hands-on experiences in different career fields.” He explained how they are not “worrying about test scores. We take the same tests as the Lee County School system, but that’s not our major focus.”
Teaching methods have certainly changed over the years, and Stephenson is doing his part at his school. “It used to be the teacher stands at the front of the class and rattles off information and the students were tasked to write it down. Now we focus more on the hands-on style teaching, called project based learning. We are making sure that all the students are engaged and active and learning the material.”
The Internet has also been a huge factor in how students obtain information. Stephenson shared that the administration is looking into a ‘bring your own device to school program.
He recalled that when calculators became pocket-sized, people feared that would ruin the education system, but it didn’t. Stephenson says, “instead of running from technology we are embracing it. Everyone is going to have a phone or a device on them pretty much at all times, so we ask ‘how can we use this?’ How can we embrace it and make it easier instead of trying to fight the technology that we have.”
Drone Day and Cardboard Boat Building
A recent fun event that was part of the hands-on learning experience was drone day. “The students got to assemble and use drones. Then we asked the students, what kind of careers can use this? And then what we did was bring in a couple of Realtors who shared with the class how they use drones for their businesses.” Stephenson is hoping to put together more hands on activity days, such as drone day. But his favorite day is probably during the last week of school when the students have a cardboard boat race.
During the last week of school, it’s natural for students to be a bit anxious for summer vacation to start. Stephenson mentioned what they do at their school is have a “cardboard boat race. The students are put into teams where they engineer how to float a cardboard boat, how to build them, and on the last day of school they race them on the lake on the school property.”
When asked what is the most rewarding part of the job, Stephenson says “graduation day,” with a laugh. “It’s working with like-minded people and a team of administrators and a team of teachers that are hungry for what makes us different,” he said. “In all honesty I want to keep doing this until the day they tell me I cannot do it any longer. I’m very proud of our schools and on the parents and volunteers.”