5 questions with Nancy Lawther, Education Advocate

Born and raised in the college town of State College, Pennsylvania, it’s no surprise Nancy Lawther is a lover of education. Her love of learning began as a child when her father read to her in French. Both her parents had studied the language, and she found herself wanting to learn as well.

Lawther eventually earned three college degrees in the language. She earned her bachelor’s at Pennsylvania State University, and then a master’s degree at Washington University in St. Louis and a doctorate at Yale University.

Lawther was a university professor for 19 years. Though she’s retired from college teaching, she has been teaching for 15 years at the University of Miami’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, where her students range in age from 50 to 94.

After hearing about the schools in Pinecrest, she and her husband, Huseyin Kocak, moved there in December 1993 with their son, Deniz, then 1. She is grateful for the education he received, especially at Miami Palmetto Senior High School.

Though Deniz is now a third-year medical student, Lawther is still involved with Palmetto High as the legislative chair for the school’s PTSA. She also is on the school’s alumni association and is the co-vice chair of the Mayor’s Education Advisory Council.

Lawther is also the vice president of education for the Miami-Dade County Council PTA/PTSA and a member of Florida PTA’s legislation committee. She travels to Tallahassee to advocate for students, representing PTA positions on educational issues.

Pinecrest Lifestyle asked Lawther a few questions about her thoughts on local education issues—and her interest in grapes.

1. What issues are you particularly passionate about?

Funding is a big issue because Florida ranks among the bottom tier nationally in education funding. Our schools do a marvelous job of economizing, but [other states] have potentially triple the funding per student. That is something I’d like to work on to see changed.

Testing also concerns me. … Testing itself is wonderful. But when tests become so incredibly high stakes, they become counterproductive. I was hopeful during the last legislative session that ended in May that progress was being made. But just one test was eliminated; I think we can do better than that.

The elephant in the room for this year’s session was House Bill 7069. It was burdened with provisions that abrogate the authority of local municipalities and school board members and mandates sharing of revenues, which the district may not have the capacity to share, with respect to charter schools. Florida PTA and Miami-Dade PTA support funding charter schools’ capital needs—building and construction. But that funding should come from the state and not the budgets for local projects. We’re working on the language this summer and will be continuing [when the legislative session starts].

2. What is your driving force?

I discovered one of my ancestors donated land for a public school, so education has been part of my family heritage. My husband is a professor. My father was a professor. My grandfather was a professor and a basketball coach. One of the roots of democracy is public education. … The core idea of community, one of its sources, is public education. That’s my prime motivation.

3. What’s your advice for community members who want to get involved in public education?

If you listen to the livestreamed village council meetings, the mayor reports on what the education advisory council is doing.

Social media is a tremendous resource. The newsletters for the various schools issue “action alerts” with a point-and-click [way] to take action and communicate with legislators, if a bill is coming up.

In addition, it’s worth knowing not only who represents you in Washington or Tallahassee but also to have them know who you are.

4. What does the future hold for Pinecrest schools?

We have tremendous teachers and administrators who care deeply about education. If we can make sure the funding keeps pace with the schools’ needs, I think we’re good to go. The schools are always exploring adding programs, and, because they are community-based schools, they serve as a binder in the community.

And everybody is looking forward to the [renovation] of the high school; the students’ accomplishments will be front and center.

5. Can you share details about your hobby—making wine?

[My husband and I] have been making wine for close to 20 years [with a couple in Homestead]. Every August, we order grapes from California. We have grape vines on our property, but the birds get more of the grapes than we do. The grapes come in September or October. Then, we destem them with a hand-crank machine. We let them ferment for a week and then they get crushed [with an old-fashioned apple cider maker]. The juice sits for about six months. We bottle between the end of March and the beginning of May. We make between 75 and 150 bottles a year for consumption at home and for giving away as presents to friends or serving at parties.

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