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New Yorker turned Floridian, Council for Educational Change Executive Director Dr. Elaine Liftin got her start as a singer on Broadway. While attending Hunter College, she became intrigued by the challenge of education and, upon graduating, began her teaching career in South Florida.
Dr. Liftin has dedicated her career to education advocacy and believes “if every child can get a quality education, every child can succeed.”
Chris Cate: Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian podcast, featuring the Sunshine State’s brightest leaders talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida, and its millions of weekly visitors. In this episode created by SalterMitchellPR, our Executive Producer Heidi Otway, the President of SalterMitchellPR, talks to Dr. Elaine Liftin, the President and Executive Director of the Council For Educational Change.
Heidi Otway: So Elaine, thank you so much for being a guest on today’s Fluent in Floridian podcast. We are thrilled to have you as our guest today.
Elaine Liftin: My pleasure.
Heidi Otway: So let’s kind of dive in and talk about from the beginning and how you started your career. You are a lifelong educator. You served as a principal and a teacher in South Florida. How did you get into education?
Elaine Liftin: Well, to be honest, I started to sing professionally. And I rushed through school. And I was in New York, and I graduated from high school at 15. And my mom said, “There’s no way you’re not going to continue on in school.” So I went to Hunter College because I had good averages, and it cost me $23 a term to register. And I was singing part time. And I picked Hunter College because it was across Central Park from where my manager was. And that’s really what I had planned to do.
Elaine Liftin: But you always want to be safe and have something to fall back on. And I chose education because I felt like when you sing professionally, and people pay for your performance, they can get up and leave. But when you’re a teacher, you have to find those strategies. You have to keep kids interested because they can’t get up and walk out. And I just found it very interesting that if I could keep kids engaged and involved, they seemed to like me, they were interesting. It was easy for me to do. And that’s why I continued on in education.
In fact, the first year I taught, I taught in the fourth grade. Because I did my student teaching at 18, and no high school principal would hire an 18 year old. So I was at PS 78K in Brooklyn, Queens. And Langston Hughes lived in the neighborhood. And I had the first paired school in Brooklyn. And that was very successful. And I was singing in Fiorello off Broadway at the time, and brought my whole school to see that performance. And it was a very interesting time.
When we moved down to Florida, I had a daughter who was about two and a half. And my parents moved down with my grandmother who watched her. So I said, well, gee, let’s try to get some employment down here. My husband’s a teacher also. So we interviewed. I immediately got told that I was going to go to a high school. And then I got a letter saying, “Nope, you’re going to Allapattah Junior High School.”
Heidi Otway: And that’s in Miami, right?
Elaine Liftin: That’s in Miami. Now in New York, I had taught at Springfield Gardens High School, a triple session school. And at that time, my husband and I both taught in that school. And I said, okay, well, we’ll see what happens. There at Allapattah, I met the most wonderful person you could imagine, Dr. Kenneth Walker. He was the principal. He was phenomenal. And he said to me that when he had to hire a teacher, and he knew that the desegregation was coming, he said, “Why are you sending me five black teachers? Why can’t you send me somebody that’s going to help me integrate the school earlier?”
So when he went downtown, they just put a whole bunch of files out and they said, “Pick one.” So he said he needed three. So I was the second one that he picked. And when I got to the school, he said, “You’re now going to be the chair of the social studies department.” And I said, “Well, where’s the scope and sequence? What are we doing?” He said, “Well, that’s why you’re the chair. You’re going to figure it out.” And after being with Doc, and him literally blackmailing me into going to University of Miami to get my doctorate because he said, “I’m not going to let you teach summer school until you do that.” I was able to do it. And he was wonderful.
From there, I went downtown. I worked in, actually Title IV-C project, law education goals and learning. And I was able to do that. And we got it state and nationally validated. And you mentioned that you had gone to Carol City High School. Well, that was one of the schools that had my legal project in it. And following that, I was downtown. We completed the project. And I became the executive director for the management training in Miami Dade County public schools. Having done that, I also worked with Joe Fernandez and became a special projects director for him. I worked with the building program. I did a number of things.
And when he went to New York, I had been staff development, so that I went to actually a school site. Paul Bell asked me, “Would you like a challenge? If you will be successful at a school site and not just do the staff development, be a principal, then we’ll bring you back downtown.” I said, “Okay.” And I went to Oak Grove Elementary School. At Oak Grove, it was very interesting. I didn’t have much prep time to go there, but there had been three murders in Oak Grove Park. There was building and there was I guess about a $3.4 million of work.
And fast-forwarding, turned it around. Did school based management, shared decision making. Had my book published. And they invited me, because we had done such a good job there, to be principal in residence at the accountability commission in Tallahassee. I did that for the state, had a wonderful experience there. And while I was there, Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin from Barry University said, “Well, why do you want to commute back and forth? Come stay at Barry and do your work here.”
And that’s where I told her that I was in the Florida retirement system. So she bought my contract for Dade County schools. And I became the associate dean in the School of Education at Barry. And I was there for about three, almost four years. And I saw that Ambassador Annenberg had given a half a billion dollars to education. And he had done a couple of projects in New York and California. There was San Francisco. There was Los Angeles. There was one in Texas and Boston and Detroit, and nothing in South Florida.
So I said to Sister Jeanne, “Are we chopped liver?” Why do we not get anything? She said, “Well, you want to make a difference, go ahead and do it.” So I said, “If I can use your name, then okay, I’ll consider doing that.” Fast forwarding again, I submitted an application. And they said that if you did Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach schools as a regional grant, they’d consider it. We did. We got $100 million, and that was the South Florida Annenberg [crosstalk 00:07:43].
Heidi Otway: Wow.
Elaine Liftin: And then they asked if I would lead that. And I said, “But Sister Jeanne has my contract.” So they bought it. And I was able to, on February 7th, 1997, actually initiated the South Florida Annenberg Challenge. But it was a challenge. You had to raise $33.3 million in private money and then had to get the school districts to reposition that money. And then you could draw down the third leg of the stool. And it was there that Leonard Miller became our board chair. And as a result of that, we were able to gain the resources. We did 132 different projects. And the goal was how do you improve the academic performance of underserved students? And there, we were able to do that.
We found that there were three key factors. We had very heavy evaluation from University of Miami, as well as Auburn University. And we found there were three factors. The very first one, most important, was the leadership at the school site. When you had a principal with a can do attitude, who could marshal the troops and build a vision, you had a winner. The second was the quality of staff. We did not invest in 40 computers in a classroom. What we did was we invested in teachers to make sure that they could benchmark performance. They could integrate technology into the instruction. They could just interact better with students and do a good job. And the third, which was extremely important, was the opportunity to work with the parents and the local community, and the business and the influential leaders in a community. Because that’s what really made a difference as well.
So we showed that we were successful. And unfortunately Leonard Miller took ill. He wanted his legacy to be a statewide organization. And when we completed our contract in six years, Annenberg was so pleased with us they allowed us to go statewide. And that was the origins of the Council for Educational Change. And that’s why we became statewide. And that’s why our goal was to engage business in education because we found that successful business leaders and successful principals who are actually the CEOs of a major corporation, their school.
Heidi Otway: That’s correct. Yes.
Elaine Liftin: Was able to work collaboratively, partner with one another, and help make sure that the students had the best quality of education. When we got to the high school, really, it was to business advantage to make sure that when students graduated, they were prepared for college, as well as the world of work. That was even before it became fashionable. And we were very fortunate that we had several signature programs, partnering a business executive with a school principal to put together a business plan over a three year period of time, make an investment.
And then we matched it through Annenberg. And then ultimately we matched it through a legislative appropriation. So that school by school by school, we could have them work on a business plan to support the school improvement plan. And we’ve had probably over 194 different past programs over the past 20 years. At least 75% of them have had demonstrated academic gains, learning gains. And even though they use different metrics to measure this, and that, and the other thing, we’ve been consistent saying, we’re looking at learning gains, that the students improve. And we’ve had their goals and objectives we could measure against then.
We must’ve had about $20 million, all told, that we’ve matched. Now, I will tell you that over the course of 20 years, we have had about 600 business partnerships because we did an executive partnership program as well. And we’ve impacted about a million and a half students. But the key thing now was that as we did that, the mission of the council is to engage business in education, and prepare and empower school leaders, and deal with critical issues in education. But what business was telling us, because we have an all business board, is that there’s a job skills mismatch.
Heidi Otway: Oh yeah, definitely. We hear that all the time.
Elaine Liftin: Yeah. But what do we do about it? And that was another challenge that we had. And we like challenges because we like to find ways to overcome them and be creative and make things work. And that’s how we began the Career Awareness Leadership Forum. Where we literally took a team of a principal, a guidance counselor, and some students, at least two students, a junior and a senior, to various sites. We work with Celebrity Cruise Lines. And we did, because Lisa Lutoff-Perlo said, “We don’t have the appropriate leadership. We don’t have a diversified force that we’d like to see.” We’ve worked very closely with Duke Energy and Pinellas County. In Hillsborough County, we did technical health careers, information technology. And the last one we give was hospitality management. And we were at the airport. We were at Busch Gardens and we even were at a boutique Epicurean Hotel. And in each instance, what made us different was that we literally had the students not just sit and get. What the students did was they had jobs.
Chris Cate: You’re listening to the Fluent in Floridian podcast, brought to you by SalterMitchell Public Relations. SMPR is an award-winning agency that provides strategic insight and guidance to organizations seeking to make an impact in the nation’s third most populous state. To learn more about the agency, visit saltermitchellpr.com. Now back to Heidi Otway’s conversation with Dr. Elaine Liftin, where they discover a mutual connection.
Heidi Otway: So you’re coming up on 20 years.
Elaine Liftin: 20 years for the Council.
Heidi Otway: Yeah. For the Council, right?
Elaine Liftin: No, forget it. I started at 18. So it’s a little bit more than 20 years.
Heidi Otway: And you just said something so profound is that you want to create people through this program that go out and get jobs, and help business, and help their communities. So over the years, have you all been able to keep track of the students who’ve been through the mentorship programs and such? And can you share with me a success story of a young person? I’m sure you have many, but which one is the one that you would just love to share?
Elaine Liftin: I’m going to tell you one that’s all the way back at Allapattah time. Doc, put together what we called a early bird class. He said to me, “Well, I want you to get the kids here early. I want you to pick those that you think are going to be most successful.” Well, Bertha Henry, who is now at the middle of the Broward government, she was in my class. Natalie Florence became a pediatrician. I keep tabs on some of these individuals because we started at the beginning.
In terms of the Council, I cannot tell you how many principals have been promoted to downtown jobs and have them put in situations where they’re able to succeed. In fact, the former commissioner of education was in one of our seminars for our leadership courses. We did the Commissioner’s Leadership Academy. And many of the people that we’ve worked, whether they’ve been assistant principals moving up, or principals moving up, we’ve had a lot, a lot of success stories that way.
From a student standpoint, the very first Career Awareness Forum that we did, we had a young man. I won’t mention his name, but he came from Beach High. And the very first session, we went to the Caribbean campus, and came. And in his team, there were about 14 different high school teams coming. And he listened to Lisa Lutoff and he saw some of the different types of positions. She said there are nine key areas and everything. He came back the next time in a suit and tie. He had made his own little business card.
And the second session I do what we call speed dating. And you get, actually, go one on one to get a mentor, get a friend, see what it’s really like, ask the difficult questions. And he handed out his card to everybody. And then the third session, we went aboard a Celebrity Cruise ship. We had lunch there. We saw the jobs in action. And the last session we went to FIU to see how they redid their entertainment because don’t forget it’s travel agency. It was the entertainment, it was security. It was the computer. We did the whole nine yards of that.
So then, executive partnership programs don’t entail the money as much as the partnering. And we have two networking sessions each year. So we were in Miami Dade, and the guidance counselor from Beach High came and said, “Hey, Laine, I should be very annoyed with you.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because so-and-so,” I don’t want to say the name, “was slated to go to college. And when he graduated, he went to work for Celebrity Cruise Lines.” And I said, “Oh.” So she said, “But it’s not that terrible a story because he started out in the call center. And then after the call center, within a couple of months, they put it into sales because he’s got a good mouthpiece. And then they put them in charge of a little bit of an area. And oh, by the way, they’re going to pay for his college education and [crosstalk 00:18:12].
Heidi Otway: Wow.
Elaine Liftin: And I think that says it all. The idea is business really can one on one almost recruit out their talent and keep them. Because with the career awareness sessions, what we tried to do was not say to somebody, “You go to Duke Energy. You go here, you go there.” That was not our purpose. Our purpose was to show students, you have options, right? And at Busch Gardens, the students found out that if you just get on Busch Gardens, again, hospitality is closed now, but if you get on their website and you fill out a profile saying what is it you’re interested in doing, when they have a matching job, they will call you. And they will interview you on the phone. And they will hire you and then train you. So the lady that gave them this information was now the head of HR. She started out on the computer from high school, putting in her profile, and she worked her way up.
Heidi Otway: It’s exposure. And it’s exposure. I mean, you’re exposing young people to things that they just had no idea. And it’s not something that’s taught in the classroom. I mean, you’re getting them out in the real world. And I can’t tell you, I mean, just me myself had the same experience growing up in Miami-Dade. I was exposed to the real world outside the classroom with a series of professionals that included Janet Reno. So everything you’re talking about resonates with me because I believe I’m where I’m at today because I was exposed to the real world. And professionals who said, “You know what, Heidi Otway,” well, my maiden name, “you want to be a reporter? Guess what? You can be a reporter.” And I was like, “Really? I’m 13 years old. I can be a reporter?” “Yes, you can.”
And guess what? That’s what happened. I worked in the news business, right, because of that exposure. So I think what you’re doing is life changing for a lot of young people. And it’s so worthy of business. Its the fact that you have the CEO walk into kids and say, “Let’s make candy,” and got them so excited. And they’re working and they don’t even realize they’re working.
Elaine Liftin: That’s exactly right. And kudos to you because Janet Reno worked with us on the legal project. And that was in Carol City High School.
Heidi Otway: That was me. Janet Reno was my mentor for a day. And I was awe of that experience. And it was life changing. And I’m about to cry because it was those moments that got me to realize that I could be more than what I grew up in, a single parent home. And here I am. So thank you.
Elaine Liftin: Well, you can be our poster child. You can be our poster child and come to our next career awareness, whether we do it virtually or not. And I would really seriously, we don’t know what the new normal will be, but we know that people will have to go out and work. So if there is a business or an industry that is now going to a different level, because we know that with artificial intelligence, with all the other things up and coming, jobs that are now, won’t be in the future. And there’ll be many, many jobs in the future we haven’t even thought about.
But if a business or a business leader says let’s sponsor a virtual visit. Since we can’t actually take people there now, let’s take a look at a resource that will last, that we can share statewide. If they’re willing to invest in us and sponsor that, we’ll work with them and develop that. So that, just what you’ve said, every child should have the opportunity to be exposed to all of their options. And Leonard Miller, our leader, going back to him, he said, “If every child can get a quality education, every child can succeed.” And I believe that with all my heart.
Heidi Otway: I do too. I do too. Wow, Elaine, that was so incredible. I have so many, many questions to ask you more, but you’ve covered everything. I mean, I looked at my questions here, and you’ve answered it through this conversation. And what’s next? I mean, what’s next for your organization and for you? You’ve been doing this for so long. You have so much energy. And I see the spark and the passion. What’s next?
Elaine Liftin: Well, as I said before, we can’t stay static. We have to continuously reinvent ourselves so that we’re valuable in that leadership realm. I think having that conversation will help us to take a look at what’s occurring there. And quite frankly, I think the connection with higher education is important too. Because the way we train our new teaching staff, to be able to utilize the virtual and distance learning strategies, I think that has to begin in teacher preparation as well.
I’m speaking now of somebody who’s been in higher education, there are some outstanding professors, but there are some individuals who have taught their same year 25 times. And they need to be able to demonstrate and model the expectations. So that if you peel away the onion, there are so many opportunities for leadership experiences. I think that we’re adaptable enough to see where the need is, and then to meet that need.
Heidi Otway: Great. Elaine, I hope that after folks, we have a lot of people who listen, I hope that you start getting some phone calls from businesses wanting to participate in the work that you’re doing. It’s just amazing. Amazing.
Elaine Liftin: I thank you so much. And you have my number. So if you want to talk about the past, I’m very happy to do so.
Heidi Otway: So we always wrap up our interviews, asking our guests for questions. Because you certainly are fluent in Floridian having been in the state for a very long time and really making an impact. So want to ask you just a couple of questions just to show how much more Floridian you are. The first question is who is a Florida leader that you admire? It could be someone from any different industry, or field, from the past, or someone who is still active in their work.
Elaine Liftin: Ooh, that’s a good question because I’m so old that I have many that I would admire. I think one of the key ones I would admire who is still here is Armando Codina. And I selected him because when we first introduced him to the PASS program. In fact, Jeb Bush was the governor. And we developed the program under the Florida Council 100. Armando was the first PASS principal. And he came, I hate to say kicking and screaming. He said, “Well, I don’t know anything about education.” But the way he has embedded education in everything he’s done has demonstrated into putting school at the heart of downtown Doral.
His daughter, she now chairs the charter school board. It’s a district managed charter. So it’s a public school. And the way he has engaged his family and his beliefs, and walked the walk. Janet Reno used to say, “You got to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.” He’s done that. I think he’s done something really remarkable as a wonderful model that others can replicate.
Heidi Otway: Yeah. We need to get him to be a guest on our show. We should. What person, place, or thing in Florida deserves more attention.
Elaine Liftin: I think that in the school district, you have pockets of excellence. You have Wallace Aristide who’s one of our PASS schools from Miami Northwestern Senior High School. He worked with Art Noriega who is now city manager. He is phenomenal. Not only is he a phenomenal communicator, but he has changed the culture of Miami Northwestern. I mean, he still loves the athletics and such, but a huge majority of his scholarships come from academics.
And what I love that he has done, and which also really should be replicated some more, what he’s done is he’s ensured that every one of his seniors has to have a plan for the future. They cannot go, at that point it was to the prom, or anything else until they vetted their plan. You want to go to the military, you want to go to work, you’re going to go to school, what are you going to do? And he would have the seniors be responsible to buddy up with the new students coming in to show that this is what you can do. And so I would say taking individuals who have demonstrated, particularly principals, expertise would be a wonderful thing to do.
Heidi Otway: Yeah, it is. So you grew up in New York, you moved to Florida. So you’ve been in Florida a long time. What is one of your favorite places to visit in the Sunshine State?
Elaine Liftin: My very favorite place to visit in the Sunshine State. That’s hard too because I’ve been here too long, and I’ve had too many nice places. I have to tell you, right now my favorite place to visit is with my grandkids. When they come to the house, that’s the happiest that I can be. I mean, I like seeing the water and seeing the calmness of the water. I like looking at nature. I like all of that. But right now, I look at our future generation, our future, and I look at my grandkids. That’s the nicest view in the state.
Heidi Otway: I love that. And then we typically ask folks, what’s their favorite sports team? Are you a sports fan?
Elaine Liftin: I’m going to be very diplomatic. I don’t want to get in trouble with any one of my close allies or friends and the like. So I have this rule that if I’m watching, the team is going to lose. So if I do something elsewhere and I come back and I find out that they’ve won, oh, I’m very happy. But if my husband is watching, I’ll watch too.
Heidi Otway: Okay, good. Well then let me ask you a question. What’s a book that you’ve read recently? I love talking to David Lawrence because he always asks me, “Heidi-
Elaine Liftin: What is the latest book I read?
Heidi Otway: … what book did you read last?” So any good book recommendations as a educator?
Elaine Liftin: As an educator, I mean, I’ve been so busy reading Trend and all of my webcasts, and my that’s kind of been the last, I hate to say this, but the last six weeks, I have been more looking at webcasts, looking at the suggestions for this and that. Even the papers online. I’d have to say that’s occupied most of my time. If I just want to do nothing. I mean, I had, from when I was early on, I had this whole list of Danielle Steele, and all of these other kinds of books. I can’t go to the library anymore to get what I want. So I pulled one out. And believe it or not, and I read it in an afternoon, and I said, oh good. At least I get my head away from this.
Heidi Otway: That’s good.
I’ve been doing most of my reading off of the Trend Magazine online, and the newspapers online.
Well, at least you got a chance to read just something to get your mind off of everything that’s happening. So that’s good.
Elaine Liftin: Yeah. Just to do it that way is fine. I’m trying to be very, very nonpolitical to be honest. So I just leave it at that.
Heidi Otway: Okay. Well, Elaine, thank you so much for being a guest. I’ve learned so much from you and about your organization, and the work that you’re doing. And I’m just thrilled that you agreed to be a guest on are Fluent in Floridian Podcast. Thanks again.
Elaine Liftin: Oh, it’s been a pleasure, and I’m really glad I got to know you. Take care.
Chris Cate: Thanks for listening to the Fluent in Floridian Podcast. This show is executive produced by April Salter with additional support provided by Heidi Otway, and the team at SalterMitchellPR. If you need help telling your Florida story, SalterMitchellPR has you covered by offering issues management, crisis communications, social media, advocacy, and media relations assistance. You can learn more about SalterMitchellPR at saltermitchellpr.com. You can also learn more about the Fluent in Floridian Podcast, and listen to every episode of the show at fluentinfloridian.com, or by searching for the show using your favorite podcast app. Have a great day.
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