Step into Steve Warner’s office at Eagle Lake Elementary and your eyes will be drawn to the whiteboard, where he’s drawn a large, pyramid-shaped illustration.
The names of the two Winter Haven-area high schools he serves as Polk County Public Schools’ first community liaison director are at the apex, followed by the names of four middle schools and 12 elementary schools.
The drawing is more than just a way to help Warner remember school names. It’s also a depiction of what he hopes to achieve in the role he began in January: A system of aligned resources that will flow between schools, and benefit students of all ages within his area of purview.
“What the community liaison director does, at the end of the day, is all about supporting student success,” said Warner. “In this position, I’m an advocate, a linchpin; a liaison between the community, businesses, civic organizations, local government, parents and schools — linking those groups to support our students.”
Warner, a Winter Haven native, previously worked for Florida Polytechnic, where he helped build the university’s Student Affairs office. He also spent more than 22 years at Webber University, ascending from men’s soccer coach and bookstore manager to vice president of advancement, dean of students and director of soccer operations.
“Florida Poly gave me a broader understanding of state policies and regulations, and experience in working for a large institution with multiple locations — which will serve me well at the school district. It expanded my level of administrative experience,” Warner said.
“And Webber expanded my skill set in taking care of students, and preparing them to not only graduate but to go on and be successful in the workforce and become a contributing global citizen.”
Warner, who holds a doctorate in educational leadership and a master’s in business administration, had left the field of education to try his hand at agriculture management, when he heard of the school district’s newly created community liaison director position.
The job description, which includes phrases such as “this position will increase academic achievement” and “advocating for success,” piqued his interest. The fact the position is dedicated to the Winter Haven area — his hometown and where he and his wife, Tresa, a teacher at Lake Region High, raised two children — settled the question of whether he would apply.
“When I looked at this job, I thought, ‘This is probably the one and only thing that could pull me back into education,” he said.
“I see this as a way for me to give back to my community. I’m from Winter Haven. The kids in this area are riding their bikes on the same paths I did. They’re fishing in the same ponds and playing sports at the same fields that I did. I have a passion for the students of Winter Haven because I’ve been there, and I want to have a lasting impact on this community. There’s something special about Winter Haven and this position is allowing me to contribute to that.”
Warner recently shared how he’s spent his first few months on the job to the audience gathered for Winter Haven’s CityWorks(X)po, where he shared the stage with Winter Haven leaders Doug Lockwood and Katie Worthington Decker.
Warner began by meeting with community organizations including the City of Winter Haven, the Public Education Partnership of Winter Haven, Polk Vision, the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce and more. Then he met one-on-one with the principals of each school in his area of purview.
“The creation of this position will help the Winter Haven schools in many ways,” said Qvonda Birdsong, principal of Garner Elementary.
“I would love to see this position be creative in organizing and promoting school and community events. I also think this position can be useful because (Warner) has an opportunity to reach certain people and resources in the community in order to shed light on the challenges that many schools face. I hope (Warner) will make frequent visits to my campus and help spread the word on the importance of parental and community involvement.”
Through those initial meetings with Birdsong and other principals, Warner identified a handful of recurring themes: Schools would like to see their teachers and staff members receive more appreciation from the community. They also need mentors and tutors, and guest speakers to augment the curriculum being delivered to students every day; and community members to serve on academy advisory boards, School Advisory Councils, and in other capacities.
Warner’s task now is to match the resources in the community with the needs at his schools
“I’m working on bridging the gap between the community and the Winter Haven-area schools, as well as the school district as a whole,” he said.
“This could mean helping middle schools develop their pre-academies by going into the business community and recruiting advisory board members. This could mean going into the business community to share the exciting things happening in our schools. It’s about building relationships for the benefit of our students.”
Warner’s position is new and his work is just getting started, but community leaders expect great things to come from the enhanced collaboration he will help foster in Winter Haven.
“The purpose of Steve’s role, as I see it, is to be the conduit between the needs of the schools and the needs of the community,” said Worthington Decker, president and CEO of the Greater Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce.
“In an era where students don’t necessarily attend the school closest to their home or neighborhood, finding ways to reconnect the community around the schools is of the utmost importance for the success of our students and the quality of life of the community. Steve is a native to the Winter Haven area and has deep roots in both the public school realm and the business community. He is well known, well liked and well respected, all crucial elements to creating effective collaborations.”
Added Doug Lockwood, president of the Public Education Partnership of Winter Haven:
“Steve provides a link between the district and the community to build a ‘bridge’ between the two that will result in success in all our area schools. That is the hope. Along with many others in Winter Haven, we are pleased with what Steve has accomplished to date and look forward to working with him in the coming months. We want the quality of our schools to be second to none. We believe that it takes ‘all hands on deck’ to make that a reality. We believe Steve’s position will facilitate the partnerships needed to make every school a ‘destination’ school – a school that parents and students alike seek for a quality education. Schools that build a community, not divide it.”
For more information on Warner’s work in the Winter Haven area, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.