Jay Higbee calls it a letter from God: An annual email blast last spring encouraging his church’s congregation to support public education in the community.
When Higbee saw in the email that Andrew Robinson Elementary School needed help because of its poor scholastic performance, he called Conchita Robinson, a longtime friend and the daughter of the school’s namesake.
“I called Conchita and said, ‘If your dad was around and we weren’t helping his namesake school, he’d smack us both,’” said Higbee, chief operating officer of property management firm, Foland & Higbee.
“And we decided from there that we needed to do what we could do to help.”
A business associate of Higbee’s father, Andrew Robinson was an education pioneer in Jacksonville. He was Raines High School’s first principal, interim president at the University of North Florida from 1980-82, dean of the university’s College of Education and Human Services, and the first director of the Florida Institute of Education. He died in 1988.
The Friends of Andrew A. Robinson Foundation was formed in August by Higbee; his wife, Dianne; Conchita Robinson; and her business partner, Regine Denis. At a ceremony Saturday, the foundation presented a $20,000 check to the school.
“We’ve made a good start and we’re hoping other community leaders will step up, not only at Andrew Robinson but at other neighborhood schools,” Higbee said.
Principal Latrese Fann says she knew the school was on to something big when she got a call from someone asking, “What can we do to help?” and then learned the caller was related to her school’s namesake.
Conchita Robinson says she was surprised by Fann’s response about what the school needed.
“We really thought the answer was going to be books and backpacks and pencils and paper — that kind of thing,” said Robinson, who also is vice chair of the school’s new advisory council.
But the first donation filled basic needs for the students: shoes, socks and underwear.
The foundation has since paid for school uniforms and donated about $7,000 in a guided reading curriculum that has been successful at Ruth N. Upson Elementary School.
Fann said she is hoping the curriculum, which will be put into practice in the coming weeks, will help the school improve its Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test grade, which has been an “F” the past two years.
This school year, Duval County Public Schools implemented other measures to improve student achievement at low-performing schools, including extending school for an hour and providing private-funded incentives to recruit and retain highly effective teachers.
Twenty-two Duval County schools received “F” ratings in 2013-14.
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti implored parents to read to their children and take other measures to promote students’ critical-thinking skills.
“We are doing what we need to do in order to make sure your children are where they should be from an academic point of view,” Vitti said. “But this is a contract. The contract is, we do our part and you have to do your part.”
Vitti emphasized that support like that from the foundation is a critical component of a struggling school’s success.
“This public-private partnership is important to fill in the gaps because we can only do so much with the resources we have,” he said.
Mayor Alvin Brown lauded the new partnership.
“It is the beginning of a new relationship that will empower the next generation of young people to become doctors and lawyers and teachers and entrepreneurs,” Brown said.
Higbee says his family, which has been in Florida for 10 generations and Duval County for four generations, is a longtime supporter of education and law enforcement.
“You can’t do anything without education and you can’t do anything if you’re going to worry that when you go outside, you’re going to get shot,” he said.
The foundation’s directors are asking that individuals, businesses and organizations support their efforts to improve education communitywide.
“This is not about what Conchita Robinson or the Higbees or Regine Denis is doing. It’s about education — and we’d like to have 20 people up on the stage next year celebrating what has been accomplished,” Conchita Robinson said.
Donations may be made to the Friends of Andrew A. Robinson Foundation, 133 E. Bay St., Jacksonville, FL 32202.