The Gulf Education Association hoped to spur community involvement with the county’s public schools.

The union representing teachers and school employees hope to spur discussion and reach solutions.

About motivating children in an era of increasing truancy, about promoting school safety in a time of increasing concerns, about providing the education that will allow students to achieve as adults.

The hope was to initiate at least the first sentences and paragraphs in that discussion last week as it held “Café Conversation about Public Schools” at Gulf Coast State College’s Gulf/Franklin Campus.

Consider the GEA’s expectations pleasantly met.

“This was one of the most productive meetings I have ever attended,” commented Susan Kotelman, a parent of several children in district schools.

“Solutions and plans of how to get the best learning environments for our students was the focus. No pointing fingers, just genuine concern followed by a plan of action.”

More than two dozen people participated in the workshop, offering a host of ideas and creating momentum for a second round next month, part of what the GEA is striving for: bringing the community to the table.

“We are asking the community to come up with solutions to the challenging problems we are facing in public education,” said Sheria Griffin, who helped moderate the discussion.

Griffin is the executive director of Miracle Strip Services Unit, which represents public school employees in Gulf, Bay and Walton counties.

The group met for just under two hours last week, discussing everything from school safety to parental involvement.

The consensus, based on comments during and after the workshop, is that student motivation just might top the list of challenges facing the public schools.

“We have to find a way to make our students excited about coming to school,” Griffin said.

In addition to general discussions, participants were randomly broken down into groups, each table brainstorming challenges and potential solutions to a specific challenge for public schools.

In addition to student motivation, increasing access and broadening options in vocational programs took a spot up front; industry certification and entry into the workforce a key.

“These students will be able to go out into the workforce as soon as they graduate from high school,” said Krissy Gentry, GEA president. “Everyone will be contributing to the economics of our community.”

Workforce training stands alongside and inextricably intertwined with job creation; since announcing its expansion into Gulf County nearly five years ago Eastern Shipbuilding’s early attempts to move into the county have faced challenges due to the lack of a qualified and eligible workforce.

Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School has a successful welding program the district hopes to expand to Wewahitchka, where carpentry and nursing programs offer a path to certification.

But that is it for district students not seeking a college education.

“Having vocational programs in place will help our students become productive citizens,” Gentry said.

Plans are already set for July’s “Café Conversation.”

Jason Shoaf, Gulf County’s representative on the board of Triumph Gulf Coast, has agreed to speak, focusing on Triumph grant dollars that could help facilitate vocational programs in the district.

Shoaf has approached the Gulf County School Board and Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton about the potential provided by Triumph and the opportunity to expand programs without adding to the local tax burden.

With so many challenges facing public schools, large or small, the roundtable workshops are aimed to broaden the discussion.

“It is time for our community to come together as one and rally around public education,” Gentry said. “The ultimate goal of these meetings is to provide the best educational opportunities for the students of Gulf County.”

Kotelman said, “I can’t wait for the next step.”