Six VEX robotics teams from three School District of Manatee County elementary schools are headed to a regional competition, making history for the district.
The teams are made of students from Gilbert W. McNeal, Robert E. Willis and Virgil Mills elementary schools.
The six teams participating in the regional robotics competition are the most the district has had, said Doug Wagner, the deputy superintendent of operations for the district.
Hanna Cuervo, the VEX program adviser at Willis Elementary, said funding from the millage has been used to provide robot kits to get the program started at Willis. One kit costs about $350.
Wagner said without the 1-mill property tax increase Manatee County voters approved in 2018 to increase funding for operational costs in the district, the VEX program, along with several other programs and initiatives, wouldn’t have been possible.
Since 2018, the district has collected more than $77 million through the 1-mill referendum, and the district projects it will collect almost $43 million this year.
The referendum passed with 51.38% of voters’ approval.
The funding has been used to add 30 minutes to each school day; increase salaries for school-related employees; enhance STEM, career and technical programs; and support charter schools.
Wagner said the millage has been crucial for the district to be able to support employees and students while preparing students for the future.
“This is absolutely critical,” Wagner said. “This is critical to every student in Manatee County. We must remain competitive. We’re in a global economy. The reality is you’re competing against students from around the world for careers, and our students need to be academically competitive with all students across the entire world, and because of the millage, we are giving these exciting opportunities and a whole year of education.”
When the district considered proposing the millage to voters, the district leadership saw Sarasota County Schools was providing an additional year of instruction to its students and wanted to compete.
As a result, the district added 30 minutes per school day, which adds up to an additional year of instruction for students who are in the School District of Manatee County from kindergarten to senior year of high school, Wagner said.
Wagner said the additional instructional time has improved academic success throughout the district.
Before the millage was passed in 2018, the district had six schools with a D rating in the 2017-18 school year. In the 2018-19 school year, the district had one school with a D rating. Then in the 2019-20 school year, the district had zero D schools.
Since the millage passed, the district has also seen itself get higher in state rankings. The district was 33rd in the state in 2017-18 and in 2019-20 was ranked 28th (out of 67 districts) in the state, which is the highest ranking in the history of the district.
In the 2019-20 school year, the district became an A-rated district.
The increase in instructional time and the goal of retaining and attracting teachers made increasing salaries for teachers and other school-related staff a priority for the district when allocating the millage.
A majority of the funding, 51%, from the millage goes toward salary increases for instructional staff.
The millage provides teachers a $5,201 supplement. Starting this school year, the starting teacher salary for the district is $51,630.
When it comes to enhancing STEM, career and technical education throughout the district, the millage has allowed the district to develop its more than 100 STEM, career and technical education programs throughout its 47 traditional schools.
“The careers for today and the careers for the future are focusing around STEM, so we want our students in Manatee County to be prepared for those careers,” Wagner said.
Before the millage passed, only half the district’s 31 elementary schools had STEM labs. Now the district has a STEM lab in each of its elementary schools.
STEM labs have a designated teacher who has expertise in math and science and teach students to apply those concepts to engineering. Students have opportunities to work with robotics
“They’re working to solve real-world problems,” Wagner said.
Other programs created using millage funding include the Certified Nursing Assistant program at Manatee High School and the WOZ Ed Pathway program at Palm View Elementary School.
The district also purchased advanced technology and equipment, such as cobots and anatomage tables.
Cobots are computer-controlled robotic devices designed to assist people, and anatomage tables are 3D anatomy visualization and virtual dissection tools for anatomy and physiology education.
R. Dan Nolan Middle School students use an anatomage table to learn the different parts of the heart, dissect layers of body systems from the outside to the inside of the cadaver, explore the brain and more.