Leadership Tampa’s Education Day: The Same Gray Matter

Witecki, JillJill Witecki, Director of Marketing & Community Relations, Tampa Theatre

Leadership Tampa Class of 2014

Not 48 hours before we boarded the buses for Leadership Tampa Education Day, I was on a different bus – an open-sided tour bus trundling down a dirt road through a sugar cane plantation in the Dominican Republic. Our guide – who addressed us in Spanish, English, French and German, thanks to his university degree in Tourism – asked that we NOT give money to the children of the plantation workers, even as they climbed the sides of the bus to beg.

“Their parents make about $3 US per ton of sugar cane they harvest,” he explained. “If you give them money, it teaches them that staying home to beg from tourists is better than going to school.”

In a country where graduation rates are only single-digit, it was tough to hear for those of us who had never questioned the availability of a high school diploma – especially when we stopped to realize that these kids had “the same gray matter” as we did. The same potential. The only difference, it seems, is the advantage of an opportunity to grow up in a family, in a country, in a culture that values education.

That notion of “the same gray matter” came from Academy Prep Head of School Lincoln Tamayo, who addressed the LT ’14 class during Education Day’s second stop. As he sees it, his job is to inspire and empower his 5th- through 8th-grade charges, all of whom come from families qualified for the free and reduced lunch program, and all of whom attend the preparatory middle school for 11 hours a day, six days a week, 11 months a year… free of charge.

“We all have the same gray matter,” Tamayo said, tapping his temple. “[Academy Prep] is providing the opportunity for these kids to achieve success through education.”

All of us listening that morning already had some appreciation for Tampa’s stellar institutions of higher learning – the University of South Florida, the University of Tampa and St. Leo University. Each was represented in the morning’s panel discussions, which were held in a UT board room high above the city with a spectacular view of the historic campus’ famous minarets.

But what was, I think, a surprise to our class – certainly to me, at least – was the diversity and extraordinary nature of some of the lesser-known educational opportunities we toured later that day.

Still marveling at the maturity of the students at Academy Prep, we arrived at an ordinary high school with an extraordinary curriculum: Middleton High School’s Pre-Collegiate Academy for STEM magnet program. As a relatively well-educated woman, I am not used to feeling obtuse in a room full of teenagers. But these accomplished young scientists spend their days earning dual-enrollment college credit with rigorous coursework in biomedical technology and computer systems engineering, and their evenings and weekends building robots to compete (and win) on a national scale.

At the Hillsborough Community College Ybor satellite campus a few miles away, the objectives may be a bit more straightforward, but the “toys” are much bigger. Tucked off a sparsely populated road just north of Brandon, the campus uses tools like a quarter-million dollar laser-simulated Meggitt shooting range, top-of-the-line automotive diagnostic equipment and a “skid car” rig to offer professional certification in auto mechanics, collision repair and welding, and field training for aspiring fire fighters and TPD police cadets.

And as a special surprise to wrap up our enlightening Education Day, we learned where baby automatons come from. As mom “Noelle” labored, doctors at USF’s CAMLS center delivered a bouncing baby ‘bot in one of the facility’s cutting-edge simulator rooms, which are populated by mechanized “patients” of all shapes, sizes and symptoms. A few floors below, “Matt” moaned and writhed, the victim of a battlefield injury that blew off his right leg below the knee. The $100,000 mannequin’s limbs can measure the placement and pressure of a tourniquet. His pulse, breath sounds and pupils can react to his condition. His arteries can spurt realistic “blood.” Even the OR itself can be programmed to simulate the heat, noise and stress of a M*A*S*H unit under attack.

As a training center for medical students, surgical equipment clients and doctors from all over the country and around the world, CAMLS is an internationally unique, cutting-edge facility perched unassumingly on the edge of downtown Tampa. It is a privately funded wonderland of medical innovation and experimental learning that also serves as a soundstage for commercial video shoots in need of ultramodern medical settings.

“Today’s students learn by touching, spinning and visualizing,” said CAMLS Director of Sales, Marketing and Business Development Paul Ayers, as he demonstrated for us the center’s Anatomage table – essentially a high-tech, life-sized cross between an iPad and your childhood Operation game. “The days of [learning by] flipping through a book are over.”

As John F. Kennedy once said, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” The more we as LT ‘14 classmates learn, the more we are inspired and empowered to lead Tampa into the next generation of excellence.

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About Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce

The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce is a not-for-profit business membership organization that helps promote the businesses and business interests of our members. We come from diverse backgrounds: from small businesses, big corporations, government bodies and the military. United, we become a single, unifying force with the power to shape the future of Tampa Bay.

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