Skip to main content
A1 A1
Public comments vary on African American strategies conference

SEBRING — Many citizens commented at Tuesday’s School Board of Highlands County meeting on the earlier discussion about an upcoming, out-of-state conference focused on the college readiness of African American students.

At the Feb. 14 meeting, the School Board approved the travel of three district administrators to Chicago in March for the College Board’s “A Dream Deferred” conference, but the approval was by a 3-2 vote with “no” votes from Board Members Nicole Radonski and Reese Martin.

According to the College Board, the conference is focused on the state of college readiness for African American students and provides a forum for sharing best practices, key data, and research to drive measurable actions to ensure access to opportunity.

At the School Board meeting earlier this week there was criticism of the board members who voted against staff attending the conference, while others voiced support for those board members.

Two board members were absent from the meeting – Jan Shoop and Reese Martin.

Highlands County NAACP President Angel Wiggins said she commended the educators who are going out of state to get the training so that there can be a “more diverse community and students who will be successful.”

“I was very hurt after watching the meeting on YouTube. Some of the statements from a few of the board members really tugged at my heartstrings,” she said. “As a community member, as a community leader, my expectations of this board is to be a little more open minded.

“Our children are diverse. This community is diverse and everyone deserves an opportunity to be successful.”

Reverend George Miller noted that at the last meeting District Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Education Danielle Erwin had the courage and conviction to say it is time to do something to take care of all of the children.

“The responses that I heard from at least two of the members of the School Board has left me feeling absolutely nothing but disappointed to the point that I don’t really know if there is a response,” Miller said. “Never again should we ever witness the racism and misogyny that we saw last week. You are now granted the opportunity to own up to it, learn from it and to never again dismiss the needs of our Black and our brown babies and sons and daughters and neighbors.”

Special Education advocate Linda Montalbano said she is grateful that two School Board members saw that it is not right to go to these kinds of workshops. She feels they are not established on what real history is. She said many of them are “making history up as they go along and it is promoting racism.”

“I don’t feel we should have to pay to send people out, with taxpayers’ money, to go to programs that are not established and we don’t know what they are teaching,” she said.

Parent Schyler Scott thanked Radonski for having “hard conversations and taking a hard road” and facing the fire that comes with following convictions.

Scott said she learned that Radonski had visited multiple schools on her own, spoken with many teachers, staff and parents of all races.

“I admire that you have kept your word to advocate for what is best for all students and for those employees and parents who are afraid to speak out publicly while they fear retaliation,” Scott said.

“Most recently, it has been discovered that the College Board, which is the host organization for the conference we have been discussing, has become quite political,” she said. “While this organization may provide some sound strategies, laced throughout its doctrine is divisive rhetoric and philosophy that would serve to undermine the outcomes of all students regardless of race.

“I understand any reservations to further partner with this organization. I encourage our board to explore other options.”

Sebring High teacher Danielle Pressley thanked Danielle Erwin and Sebring Principal Kim Ervin (who have advocated for the training sessions).

How many of the district’s children have benefitted from the College Board? Pressley asked.

“When we are talking about ‘woke’ find out what it means before you get up here and just run your mouth and spew more hatred,” Pressley said.

Parent Cedric Bullard said he is a confused and reasonably upset individual. Advanced Placement matters. If it didn’t matter he wouldn’t have had both of his children take Advanced Placement courses so they would be prepared for the next level.

He has heard all the rumblings about the College Board, he said.

Concerning teaching strategies, Bullard said he has been teaching 28 years in eight schools in five states.

“I have never used strategies specifically to one group of students and then a separate set of strategies to another group of students, unless it was based on their learning ability, not on their color,” he said.

At the end of the meeting, during the comments by the board members, Radonski said she realized what was discussed at the previous board meeting was going to be a sensitive topic.

“I did do my research and did work hard to share my heart,” she said. “I do want academic excellence for all of our students in Highlands County.

“I do want our district to work hard to instill a belief that every single child can accomplish what they set out to achieve through determination, through a hard work ethic, through a high respect for education and for those who work hard to educate them each day,” Radonski said.

As a high-impact educator, she said she worked hard to make sure that every single child in her classroom believed that themselves.

“I certainly never meant to send a message that our district would need to do something different in order to reach our African American community, that is actually why I spoke the way I did,” she said. “I believe that the conference, because it was geared toward the African American community, it was sending a message that we have to use different strategies.

“I don’t ever want to send the message to our children that based on your race we have to use a different strategy,” Radonski said.

Dream comes true for single mom

SEBRING — Alex Kling is a single mom of a child with special needs. She never thought she could afford to own her own home. Through working with Hicoria Pines Homes, Inc. and a obtaining a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) loan, she too now owns a piece of the American Dream. In January, Kling closed on her house in Sebring.

Kling opened her new home last Friday to show others their dreams can come true. Many local dignitaries were also in attendance such as Highlands County Commissioners Scott Kirouac and Arlene Tuck and Sebring Mayor John Shoop. Kling works at Highlands County Sheriff’s Office Animal Services and many of her co-workers and fellow deputies showed up to see her new digs and show their support.

Guests were treated to a tour of Kling’s beautiful three-bedroom, two-bath home. She opted out of a garage in order to add other touches she wanted. Kling’s craft room/office in her master suite was the envy of all the women and some men. The master bedroom had a tray ceiling, walk-in closet and large en suite as well. The home is on a large lot with plenty of space for kids and pets to run.

Hicoria Pines Homes President Tiffany Green said the clients are able to pick out their floor plan if they are building.

Upgraded touches could be found throughout Kling’s home: granite counter tops, tray ceilings in the bedroom and living rooms, and a vaulted ceiling in the kitchen. The kitchen is a cook’s dream with all stainless steel appliances and an island with a bar. The home features tile throughout.

Pastor Trish Yancey from Unity of Sebring Life Enrichment offered a blessing on the home.

The guest list was akin to the who’s who in the housing industry with representatives from Florida Non-Profit Housing(FNPH), USDA, and Highlands County Housing. Green welcomed everyone to Kling’s home and thanked them for their support of the homeowner and Hicoria Pines Homes. She said they have been able to clear many hurdles through the support of people who were in the room.

Green explained the Highway Park Neighborhood Council created Hicoria Pines Homes to help families with very low to low incomes own homes. Dean Wallace is the CEO and certified USDA loan packager and helps clients prepare their applications. The homes can be purchased or built anywhere in the United States that qualifies as rural.

USDA loans can be approved without a down payment, have lower interest rates, no PMI and can have longer terms to pay the loan to keep payments lower. Kling was able to have the State Housing Initiative Partnership Program (SHIP) help with closing costs.

Currently, there are 11 homes going up in Highlands County. Over $4 million in local homes has been approved through the USDA, according to Wallace.

“Affordable housing is needed in Highlands County,” Tuck said. “We need to bring in more families and more businesses. I’ve asked Tiffany to come to the county commissioners (meetings) and do a presentation on this. I’d like for the board to see what they’re working on.”

Wallace likened the program experience to a “Quaker barn raising,” with Hicoria Pines Homes providing the tools, and communities and businesses supporting the families.

The USDA’s Lakeisha Hood gave a brief overall view of the agency’s role in the home-buying process. The success of the program will help to destigmatize what most people think of when they hear “affordable housing.”

“It’s about making home ownership accessible,” Hood said.

She said there is a process and the USDA doesn’t make everything easy but it is good for the county to have people in beautiful homes and to raise the “tax base and support the local economy.”

Kling was Hicoria Pines Homes’ first client and just about everything that could go wrong during the process did, including a hurricane and shipping delays. Wallace said it has made the agency better to know how to handle hurdles when they arise in the construction of the next homes.

Kling said she had concerns at first because she thought the program was too good to be true. She assumed she would need tens of thousands of dollars as a down payment on a home. At every stage, she was still waiting for someone to tell her it was not real. With all of the delays, Kling said it took about a year to build the home. She admits there is a lot of paperwork, but said Wallace was a huge help with it.

“It’s all worth it,” Kling said. “Everything in life is hard. You just have to pick your hard.”

For more information on how you can own a home with a USDA loan visit or call 863-318-7481.

Free homeownership talks will be given at 10 a.m. at county libraries:

- March 4 at Avon Park Public Library at 100 N Museum Ave.

- March 11 at Sebring Public Library at 319 W. Center Ave.

- March 18 at Lake Placid Memorial Library at 205 W. Interlake Blvd.

Ukraine: Drone footage shows scale of Bakhmut's destruction

BAKHMUT, Ukraine (AP) — Amid the smoking ruins, a lone dog pads in the snow, surely unaware — or perhaps too hungry to care — that death rains down regularly from the skies on the remnants of this Ukrainian city that Russia is pounding into rubble.

But for now Bakhmut stands — growing as a symbol of Ukrainian resistance with each additional day that its defenders hold out against Russia’s relentless shelling and waves of Russian troops taking heavy casualties in a months-long but so far futile campaign to capture it.

New video footage of Bakhmut shot from the air with a drone for The Associated Press shows how the longest battle of the year-long Russian invasion has turned the city of salt and gypsum mines in eastern Ukraine into a ghost town, its jagged destruction testament to the folly of war.

The footage — shot Feb. 13 — shows no people. But they are still there — somewhere, out of sight, in basements and defensive strongholds, trying to survive. Of the prewar population of 80,000, a few thousand residents have refused or been unable to evacuate. The size of the garrison that Ukraine has stationed in the city is kept secret.

Tire tracks on the roads and footprints on the paths covered with snow speak to a continued human presence. In one shot, a car drives swiftly away in the distance. Graffiti spray-painted on the charred, pockmarked outer walls of a blown-out storefront also show people are or were here.

“Bakhmut loves Ukraine,” it reads. Next to that is the stencilled face of Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, holding up two fingers in a V-for-victory gesture. “God and Valerii Zaluzhnyi are with us,” reads writing underneath.

A top Ukrainian intelligence official this week likened the fight for Bakhmut to Ukraine’s dogged defense of Mariupol earlier in the war, which tied up Russian forces for months, preventing the Kremlin from deploying them elsewhere.

Likewise, “Bakhmut is also an indicator and a fortress,” the official, Vadym Skibitskyi, said in an AP interview. He said the city has come to represent “the indomitability of our soldiers” and that by holding it, Ukraine is inflicting “unacceptable” casualties on the Russians.

From the air, the scale of destruction becomes plain to see. Entire rows of apartment buildings have been gutted, just the outer walls left standing and the roofs and interior floors gone, exposing the ruins’ innards to the snow and winter frost — and the drone’s prying eye.

Like a caver descending into a chasm, the drone drops slowly into one of the blown-out hulks — all four of its floors now collapsed into a pile of ashes, rubble and rusting metal at the bottom.

Another five-story apartment building has a giant bite torn out of it. A black crow flies through the gap. The drone peers into a kitchen, a once-intimate family place now exposed because one of its outer walls has been torn away. There is still a strainer in the sink and plates on the drying rack above, as though someone still lives there. But the undisturbed dusting of snow on the cloth-covered table suggests they are long gone.

As the drone continues its journey, along streets where crowds no longer walk and past stores where they no longer shop, over parks where children no longer play and where old-timers no longer chew the fat, the names of towns and cities flattened in previous wars spring to mind.

Fleury-devant-Douaumont, France — a village razed in World War I, changing hands 16 times in fighting between French and German troops from June to August 1916. Never rebuilt, it was later declared to have “Died for France” — along with eight other villages destroyed in the fearsome battle for the French town of Verdun.

Or Oradour-sur-Glane, also in France, destroyed in World War II. Its ruins have been left untouched as a memorial to 642 people killed there on June 10, 1944. Nazi troops from the fanatical SS “Das Reich” division herded civilians into barns and a church and torched the village — the biggest civilian massacre by France’s wartime occupiers.

For Ukrainians, Bakhmut also is becoming etched indelibly in the collective consciousness. Its defense is already hailed in song. The track “Bakhmut Fortress,” by Ukrainian band Antytila, has racked up more than 3.8 million views.

”Mom, I’m standing,” they sing. “Motherland, I’m fighting.”

In other developments Thursday:

— The Moldovan government appealed for calm and urged the public to follow only “official and credible” sources of news after Russia alleged Ukraine is planning an “armed provocation” in Moldova’s Moscow-backed breakaway region of Transnistria.

Shortly before the Russian Defense Ministry’s claim, an adviser to Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, Anton Herashchenko, said Ukraine and NATO could together return Transnistria to Moldova within 24 hours.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has previously stated that Ukraine is ready to provide all necessary assistance to Moldova.

Moscow alleged, without presenting any evidence, that Ukrainian soldiers disguised as Russian troops planned to fake an attack from Transnistria, thereby providing a pretext for an invasion of the territory.

— Russian President Vladimir Putin gave another signal he is digging in for a protracted war, saying his government will prioritize strengthening Russia’s defense capabilities. Speaking on Defender of the Fatherland Day, a public holiday, he announced the deployment of the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile system and the delivery of a massive supply of Zircon sea-launched hypersonic missiles to Russian forces. He added that three Borei-class nuclear submarines would be added to the fleet in the coming years.

— At least three civilians were killed and eight others were wounded in Ukraine over the past 24 hours, the presidential office reported. Russian forces over the past day launched more than 80 artillery barrages of six towns and villages in northeastern Ukraine’s Sumy region, which borders Russia, local Ukrainian authorities reported. Ukrainian forces also repelled about 90 Russian attacks in the country’s east, where fierce fighting has raged for months, the Ukrainian military said.

John Leicester and Hanna Arhirova contributed to this report from Kyiv.

McGowan takes role she learned from elders

SEBRING — In June 2021, Queenie Roux drove from Sebring to Atlanta with her young daughters. She had connected with an Atlanta organization that helps single moms get a new start, find a job and a place to live.

Instead of starting a new life, Queenie and her 3-year-old daughter Queen – as well as an unborn baby – died in an automobile crash on I-75 outside the city. Queenie’s Sebring neighbors, Velma Moses and Rashael Reed, organized a memorial for Roux, her daughter Queen and unborn child at Citrus Terrace Apartments where Queenie once lived.

Someone at the memorial spoke up and said, “You have 30 seconds. Tell someone you love them now. Hug someone now.” The voice belonged to Ada McGowan, who, like Queenie, has six children of her own. And, like Queenie, McGowan had been a young mother trying to find a way forward for her chicks.

“I have grown in many ways, thank God,” McGowan said, remembering her days as a 20-something mom. “For my six kids, there wasn’t much in our community to do.”

The Highlands County Citizens with Voices CEO learned the way from older adults who volunteered in her African-American neighborhood.

“When I was a little girl growing up in Sebring, there were three different people doing things in our community,” said McGowan, 60. “One mentor was Robert Saffold Sr., and he always had things going on for the youth and people in the community.”

She also points to Willie Smith – aka “Broboy” or “Dank” — who also passed away in 2021. Saffold and Smith took the time to organize activities for kids. Then there was Mary Toney, who has a Washington Heights park named after her.

“Oh, my God, she loved kids,” McGowan said, remembering the impact Toney had on her life. “Miss Mary would do whatever she could for any child, make sure a family had school clothes. If they didn’t have any, she would find clothes for them.”

McGowan made sure her children participated in activities organized by Saffold and others.

“‘Dank’ started a Little Miss Youth Center fashion show. I was maybe 21 and I helped him with that. It was the highlight each summer,” she said laughing. “Marilyn Spence then started a Mr. Sporty fashion show, so there was something for little girls and little boys. The boys served as ushers for the Little Miss show.’”

There were rules for the kids to follow.

“It built up morale in the kids; it made them feel like they could do anything,” McGowan said. “If they went up to the corner, they were in trouble. It was a good way to keep them out of the streets.”

Best of all, she and other mothers would have their kids participate.

“My children were the reason I would do what I did,” she said. “All my kids were involved. I have four boys and two girls, and the boys had to be an usher. It built up their self-esteem.”

Saffold, who for years took kids from the tri-county area to the Florida Classic game in Orlando, died in July 2021 at the age of 91. He wanted youngsters to experience the thrill of watching college football in person. Willie Smith, Toney and other mentors showed McGowan the way.

“These are the people I watched, and when my children grew up, I wanted to give back.”

And that’s what she does. As Saffold aged and reduced his role organizing the annual Juneteenth Celebration and the MLK Parade, McGowan slowly took the reins.

Under the auspices of her Citizens with Voices group, McGowan now organizes the annual Sebring Martin L. King Parade, which was expanded from MLK Jr. Boulevard to include Sebring Circle and downtown. Sebring High School Air Force JROTC, dressed in their blue uniforms, led the parade with the colors. Mayor John Shoop, City Councilman Leonard Carlisle, and other local leaders joined children, parents and grandparents from Washington Heights and other neighborhoods carrying banners and signs celebrating King’s legacy.

McGowan says the parade and picnic cannot be accomplished without the help of many, many volunteers who donate time and goods.

“We feed more than 300 people, and a lot of people donate food, trophies and entertainment, like the bounce house,” she said.

Frames and Images, Swann’s Mortuary, Highlands County NAACP, Southern Bank, and other local businesses and organizations provide sponsorships.

She and her fellow volunteers also organize the Juneteenth Celebration along Lemon Avenue.

McGowan’s work has not gone unrecognized. The Highlands County NAACP awarded her the 2022 Gwen Sanders-Hill Award for spearheading Martin Luther King Jr. events, Juneteenth celebrations, community picnics, backpack giveaways, community Easter egg hunts, community Thanksgiving feasts, and for helping veterans with their veterans memorial in Washington Heights.

The list continues: She and her volunteers hold a bicycle donation program at Christmas. With help from Holly Ogg, the daughter of Penny Ogg, the late-supervisor of elections, as well as Legacy Bikes, she obtained some 70 bicycles for adults and children. On Valentine’s Day, she handed out cupcakes to children – another act of love in a time when kindness is sometimes hard to find.

There is an urgency to her mission to save the next generation of youngsters.

“We have to give children a reason to stop shooting each other,” McGowan said. “They don’t have a reason. We need to put something in the community that is going to attract the attention of our youth, otherwise we’re going to have to dig another grave. We need to come together, unify.”

Find the latest edition of Welcome Home Heartland in today’s Highlands News-Sun. This monthly magazine is your premier real estate guide for Highlands County and beyond.