Are The Black And Brown Children In East Lee And Lehigh Receiving A Free And Appropriate Education?

By Denise Nystrom

According to federal law every child is to receive FAPE, a free and appropriate education. If not for being an educational expert who ran the human resource departments for school districts, I may not have known when I started attending the Lee County School Board Meetings that one should be concerned about our children in East Lee and Lehigh. While for 20 years children are learning in trailers in that area, ground has been broken to build a new K through 8 school in the predominantly white area of Estero with less than 3% black children. The student demographics in East Lee and Lehigh are approximately 22% black and 53% Hispanic.

Building a brand new school takes years in the making before ground is even broken. Land must be purchased if not already held, surveyors must assess the land for its suitability, planners and architects design schematics, and proposals must be submitted to the state for approval. But, before this process even begins, the district must justify that the student growth has increased to the extent that the area warrants a brand new school building to be built.

That specifically, student growth, is what has been called into question by many community members about the K-8 school in Estero. It has led into a more in-depth analysis of the entire situation and questions that linger about why a school in Lee County is being built in Estero and not in East Lee or Lehigh.

Prior to the 2020 election, Board Member Chris Patricca went on a campaign to convince the taxpayers that they should vote in favor of a half-cent sales tax that could be used to build the new K-8 school in Estero. This is according to her own words at the November 2nd, 2021 School Board Briefing Meeting where she stated that she spent many days speaking to groups 5 times a day in order to get the sales tax passed on the 2020 referendum. So, when I came across a video of a presentation dated May 4th, 2020 that Dr. Ken Savage was giving, I was stunned when he expressed that there was no need to build in Estero because the student growth did not warrant it, but there was a need in East Lee and Leigh High.

Dr. Ken Savage is currently the Interim Superintendent for the Lee County School District. At that time, he was the Chief of Operations, so it was his department that oversaw such things as the necessity for building. Why after that presentation didn’t the school district reassess where it was that they were going to build and look at the district overall to determine where the needs were? That in and of itself bears questioning.

If the community heard once they heard dozens of times at board meetings Board Member Gwen Gittens, the District 5 Representative asking the very same question with her words falling on deaf ears. It was not until Board Member Patricca made racially charged remarks about Guatemalan children in the district, that the most difficult thing principals face was getting them out of the bathroom because they like to flush the toilet and turn the faucets on and off because they were amazed by plumbing, that thankfully the news media and the President of the US-FL Guatemalan Chamber of Commerce located in Lee County, Mario Juarez joined the fight in questioning if the building in Estero should be built there at all. President Juarez, a few others, and myself have filed an official Complaint with the Office of Civil Rights against Board Member Patricca to have these questions answered and want the building in Estero to be halted immediately until such time as it can be determined that it is necessary to build there.

If the parents and community members in East Lee and Lehigh are not concerned yet about what it is that they are reading here, they should be. There is a huge trickle-down effect that exists by not having students learn in the appropriate educational facilities. If I were them, I would be showing up at every school board meeting demanding that that population growth study that was used to build in Estero be provided to the community members, as it has been asked for time and time again but has not been received. Further, I would demand that an updated growth study be conducted and presented to the public, so that the public has a full understanding of what is going on regarding student growth in Lee County.

Board Member Paticca denies that she intended to make disparaging remarks about Guatemalan children. Yet to date, I have not heard her say openly that the district needs to conduct a student growth study to assess the needs of Lee County overall. She is solely focused on making sure that the Estero building gets built.

As with all areas, East Lee and Lehigh face its own unique challenges about educating children. Having the proper educational facilities is paramount and equates with higher achievement scores, lower dropout rates, and more students successfully transitioning into colleges, vocational schools, or jobs that provide on-the-job training. Overcrowded schools, facilities that don’t have the proper science labs, gymnasiums, cafeterias, auditoriums, or playing fields all lead to an increase of student violence.

I have also heard that the schools in East Lee and Lehigh do not have the most experienced administrators or educational staff working with their children. It is time for this to stop. A situation grows out of decades of a culture that exists. This culture must be changed, and the school district has to be the change factor. If this is the area where the need exists, then this is the area that must be attended to even if it means paying a better salary to the educational and support staff in that area. Changing a pre-existing culture does not occur overnight. It must be nurtured over a long period of time.

It is the due diligence of every community member in Lee County, whether they have children in their schools, to guarantee that all children are receiving an appropriate education. It is the foundation for what makes our children successful and productive members of society.

I urge everyone who is reading this article to contact the Governor’s Office, the Commissioner of the Florida Department of Education, their State Senators and Representatives, the Superintendent of the Lee County School District, and the Board of Education and demand that the building in Estero be stopped until transparency is provided to the community and to support an Office of Civil rights investigation.

For Comments, please contact Denise at:

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