Elizabeth Andersen's Story
Elizabeth Andersen is a former Duval County Public Schools (DCPS) teacher, an experienced non-profit agency worker in the mental health field, owns her own business, and is a newly elected School Board Member for DCPS in District 2. Throughout all of her roles of serving children and communities in Jacksonville, she recognizes a common thread in her work. “Everything is really rooted in what I see as a calling to help people realize their full potential. I believe in the goodness of people. Data points and dollar signs are certainly important, but if I am successful in four years, it will be about creating a culture throughout the district and in communities where we understand the value of relationships,” she said. She’s a long-time Community First member and her story of putting the community first inspired us to share her passion.
Roots in Community First
Elizabeth has been a member of Community First since the 1990s, back when we were Educational Community Credit Union. “I remember the first time I became aware (of what is now) Community First. I was an only child, my mom was a single mom while I was growing up, she was working all the time, and the woman who watched me was the front office worker at my elementary school. She was a good family friend of ours. Community First had a booth at the school to recruit teachers to become members.” Elizabeth remembers the old apple logo of Educational Community Credit Union and as a child, was really curious about a bank where only teachers could be members; it seemed like a very exclusive thing. “I distinctly remember that. My mom became a member and I remember thinking, ‘We got in!’ and to me it was like we were part of this very exclusive club.”
Naturally, when Elizabeth started working and needed a bank account, she turned to Community First. She grew up in Arlington and recalls, “It was a mile from my house. It was our corner credit union.” Elizabeth briefly switched to a larger bank when she attended college outside of Jacksonville, but after it was bought by an even larger, national bank, she said, “I just wasn’t interested in being a part of big banking. That wasn’t for me.” She said, “Nope! I don’t want to be a part of this, I’m out! I want to go back to my community credit union. So there was no other option for me.” Elizabeth established her second account in 2009 after returning home to Jacksonville.
To this day, Elizabeth has multiple accounts with Community First, including several checking and savings accounts. She also opened her business account for her mental health practice with Community First in 2014. When she ran for her School Board seat in 2018, she used Community First for her campaign account, too. Every car she has ever financed has been through a Community First auto loan. She is a dedicated and well-established member!
A Journey of Hard, but Important Work
High School Teacher and Master’s Degree Work
Elizabeth started her career in education by teaching high school at her alma mater, Terry Parker High School in the Arlington neighborhood of Jacksonville. She also taught at Edward H. White High School. While teaching, Elizabeth was simultaneously pursuing her master’s degree in Mental Health Counseling. After teaching for three years, Elizabeth transitioned into the counseling field. Elizabeth’s degree required a full-time internship, which made it too difficult to stay in the classroom. “There weren’t enough programs that I could do after I left teaching high school at 3:00 p.m.,” she said. “I needed to have some day-time flexibility in my schedule, and there were very few internship options that I could only do in the evenings.” Her Clinical Internship was at Hope Haven, a non-profit organization serving children, young adults, and families with a variety of educational, developmental, and mental health needs.
Gateway Community Services
She then transitioned into a grant program with Gateway Community Services, which specialized in working with people who are experiencing homelessness, as well as substance abuse problems and other mental health diagnoses. “That was such a great opportunity to really understand the culture of homelessness and the culture of addiction,” Elizabeth said. When she later worked in the non-profit community agency world, she explained, “Having the background in addictions and homelessness really helped me understand the systems that create those kinds of circumstances for people, and that has been really invaluable.”
Child Guidance Center
“When that grant program ended, I didn’t know what I was going to do, but children keep finding me,” she said. That’s when she began working with the Child Guidance Center as a School-Based Therapist. At the time, the Child Guidance Center had a contract with Duval County Public Schools and Elizabeth was contracted to provide mental health services at several different schools throughout the county for a specific program. Funding for the program was eventually cut, and many people lost their jobs. Fortunately, Elizabeth was able to transition into another role there. She said, “I was really grateful to move into a role as a Full Service Schools Counselor.” Full Service Schools is a program that partners with agencies all around the community, such as the United Way and Kids Hope Alliance, to support mental health for Full Service Schools. Because of these partnerships, the Full Service Schools program has expanded to every school in Duval County so that all students have access to mental health services. “It’s really a true community initiative that comes together to provide those services,” she said. Elizabeth then transitioned into a role as the Supervisor for the Community and Family Services department, which addressed a higher mental health need. “Every position that I was in had an in-school component,” she said. Elizabeth ended up doing both in-home and in-school therapy while working for the Community and Family Services department. “That work brought me to almost half of the schools in Duval County,” she said, “as I would go around and meet with children to provide them with therapy at school.”
Foundations Therapy Jax
While working in the non-profit agency world, Elizabeth was also acquiring her licensure. She later received her license as a Mental Health Counselor. That’s when she decided to open her own business / private practice – Foundations Therapy Jax – while continuing her agency work. “All of my work in the non-profit world was all community based, but my private practice is more traditional, with people in an outpatient setting who come to an office,” she said. Elizabeth opened her private practice in the community where she lives, which is near the Beaches. The work she was doing with the agency was in other areas of Duval County, mostly in Northside and Westside neighborhoods, as well as Arlington areas. “Being out at the beaches, I was able to serve a different demographic,” she said. There was no conflict of interest for Elizabeth, as she didn’t feel like she was taking business away from the non-profit where she was simultaneously working.
Elizabeth maintains her private practice to this day (serving multiple clients a week), but is no longer doing community work for the agency, as her School Board position takes up about 30 hours of her week. “I do it because I love it, not because I’m trying to make an income,” she said.
A Common Thread of Taking Care of People
Whether it was working as a high school teacher, at a non-profit doing agency work in the community, seeing patients in her private practice, or working in the school system as a School Board Member, everything Elizabeth does has a theme. “Everything is really rooted in what I see as a calling to help people realize their full potential. I believe in the goodness of people. Unfortunately, there are things and circumstances that happen in people’s lives that sometimes get in the way of us being able to be our best. So anything I can do to remove those barriers… then that is what I’m called to do.”
Elizabeth was elected as the Board Member for Duval County Public Schools (District 2) in November 2018. She continued doing agency work until March 2019. “It was really important to me to not abandon that position, to make sure my staff were in a good place, and we were in the middle of some projects that I just couldn’t drop. I also wanted to give the agency time to evaluate how they wanted to continue the programming,” she said.
The Campaign and Election
The Advantage of Being a Former DCPS Teacher
Elizabeth knew she wanted to be more involved with the community and children. She conferred with her friend with whom she taught at Ed White, Brooke Hitzeman, who is now the Assistant Principal at Mayport Coastal Sciences Middle School. “I knew that the position for our district was opening up,” Brooke said. “[Elizabeth] was saying she wanted to get more involved, so I said, ‘I know this is coming up soon; you’d be great for it. You know the school, you have the mental health understanding, and you want to get more involved -- check it out!’”
When we asked Brooke why a former teacher would be good for the job, she said, “They understand what it’s like day to day. It’s not like you’re just passing policies and procedures and don’t realize how it’s impacts the people who are actually in there. You can visualize, ‘OK, I know what a typical day looks like in a school, in a classroom, working with kids.’ If you don’t have that mindset, it’s going to be hard to relate.”
Now that Elizabeth is a School Board Member, we asked her how being a former teacher influences her decision-making. She said, “I know what it is to have a constantly revolving door of curriculum, and feeling like you constantly have to train yourself before you can train a child. As a School Board Member, now I know to ask, ‘Is there adequate training and professional development that’s provided with this curriculum, or do you just get a book and you’re expected to teach a kid?’ Being able to bring that conversation (and asking if it’s being implemented as it's intended to be) is a huge advantage.”
Five Hopefuls, One Winner
When Elizabeth decided to run for the School Board seat in her district, she was one of five hopefuls in the race. Nick Howland, a businessman whose primary career included managing businesses owned by private equity firms and multinational companies, was her toughest opponent. He had more campaign contributions than all of the other candidates. Other candidates included Shannon Beckham (former DCPS teacher and PTA President), Sam Hall (retired scientist and city volunteer), and Casey Ayers (a local project manager and strategic consultant). Elizabeth honestly didn’t feel that she would win. Sure, she was a former DCPS teacher and mental health advocate, but didn’t have the same campaign funds as Howland, nor did she have any political experience. She recruited the help of her closest friends, current and former educators, and mental health advocates across the community to help her with her grassroots-style campaign. After the primaries in August 2018, the field narrowed down to Andersen and Howland.
As a former DCPS teacher, agency worker, and licensed mental health counselor, Elizabeth decided to run her platform on developing the whole child, with an emphasis on the need for increased awareness (and funding) for mental health and social-emotional learning. “I remember when I signed on for the campaign, I just said, ‘I’m just going to talk about mental health and child development and what’s good for kids’ and hopefully that will help people continue to talk about it, and at the end of the day, maybe someone will listen. I never anticipated how deeply it would resonate with people. I would say things that people didn’t know they wanted to hear. These were things that people felt like somebody should be talking about, and when speaking to people one-on-one, they would feel like I was really hitting a nail on a head. It was really resonating with them, and I was just speaking my truth and speaking what I believe based on my training and my experience and what I see happening in the community. People connected with that, and it was really easy for it to grow grassroots,” she said. Elizabeth won the race against Howland in November 2018 with flying colors.
People, Not Politicians
Elizabeth was not trying to be an opportunist by running for this position. “I really believe it is important to be genuine, to be authentic, to be vulnerable, and that is how, as human beings, we connect with one another. The more we are connected and the tighter our relationships are with the humans around us, the better our world will be.” When talking about other politicians, she said, “I see politicians talk to people. And it’s so different to see a politician talk to a group of people and to see a person talk to a group of people. I hope that I always remember what my purpose is and why I got into this – because people elect other people to represent their human needs. I am there to represent 90,000 people, to speak for them, not as a politician, but to really speak for what people need. People felt like we needed to address mental health and children’s social-emotional needs, so I am that voice for now. I don’t know how long I’ll get to have this space and get to be that voice, but I’m going to do it the best that I can.”
Elizabeth always thought that she would want to be involved in local community government or politics, but later in life. "I didn’t anticipate that now would be my time, but when people started talking about mental health and it became such a pressing issue, it just became really clear to me that the time is now,” she said. Elizabeth’s personal motto throughout the campaign was, “If not me, then who?” and says that she always asks, “What’s the problem and how do we tackle it? Even if it’s not fixing it or making it go away, but how are you able to best be part of the solution? If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” she said – something she used to preach to her students. “At some point,” she said, “it just became inevitable for me to step up and to take my experience and expertise, as fresh and young as that is, and offer it as part of the conversation. And people welcomed it at the table, so here I am.”
A Vision for Success
The School Board seat is a four-year term. Duval County does have term limits, with Board Members being able to run for two terms. Elizabeth has an opportunity to hold this role for eight years if the community wants to re-elect her. “If I am only here for four years, I would feel satisfied to have helped build a community – not just a school system, but a community – that understands the value of taking care of people’s social and emotional needs and that is the foundation for all of the rest of our success. I’m committed to being the voice for mental health,” she said. When asked if she wants to see certain data points by the end of her term, she said, “I care more about people and relationships and that’s harder to quantify. Numbers help mobilize people for a cause, but at the end of the day, sometimes it just about a feeling.”
“Children aren’t data points or dollar signs” was a big tagline throughout her campaign. “At the end of the day, they are children. We must continue to stay focused on children, what is good for children, what is good for people, and what is good for our communities. Our schools serve our children, but our children are part of families, those families are part of neighborhoods, those neighborhoods make up a larger community,” she said. “Data points and dollar signs are certainly important, but if I am successful in four years, it will be about creating a culture throughout the district and in communities where we understand the value of relationships,” she said.
Elizabeth has lived in Jacksonville nearly all of her life. She currently resides in the District she serves, near the Beaches, with her husband Martin and her toddler son, Cooper. She is currently one of only two School Board Members (out of seven) who were former DCPS teachers. She is currently the only School Board Member who is also a licensed mental health therapist.
The current School Board Members and Superintendent of DCPS, Dr. Greene
Elizabeth enjoying New Board Member training with Charlotte Joyce (District 6) and Darryl Willie (District 4)
Elizabeth visits Tallahassee to meet with state Legislators and advocates for DCPS students, staff, and communities
Elizabeth and Dr. Greene visit the Rotary Club of Jacksonville (Oceanside)
Friends, family, and supporters across District 2 helping Elizabeth on the campaign trail
Former District 2 hopefuls endorse Elizabeth after the primary election
How You Can Help Elizabeth
“It’s really important to me to be able to figure out how to move forward with our community partnerships,” Elizabeth said. “We live in a big community with a wide range of diverse skills and a lot of people want to give back. I find that we’re all moving in a good direction, just not the same direction. So how do we get the arrows from being scattered to align in the same way moving forward for our community and for children in the school system? I think that it’s important that whatever the barriers are, we figure out how to remove them,” she said.
Addressing Social-Emotional Needs and Turnaround Schools
Some of the initiatives that Elizabeth is working on personally, not just for District 2, but for all of Duval County, is their social-emotional learning program. “We need to make sure that we are supporting students’ and staffs’ social-emotional needs. It’s a critical need, and if we really want to see our kids move, then we’re going to have to remove some of these other barriers and we have meet those social-emotional needs because that primes their brain for learning,” she explained.
“I think that one of the places that is a critical need for us is our turnaround schools,” she said. “These schools have recently been renamed to ‘schools of innovation,’ which is great because we have to start thinking outside the box,” she said. “We need to be innovative with our approach with these children because most of our turnaround schools have children with a high level of poverty, who come out of systemic, inter-generational patterns of trauma. So when you’re coming to school and you haven’t had enough to eat or you were too cold when you were sleeping, or too hot, or have to share a mattress on the floor with three other kids, and all of the things that come along with living in tough circumstances, you are not primed for learning,” she explained. “We can put in the best academics, the most assessments to track their progress, we can keep testing and tutoring, but at some point, we have to get more innovative about meeting their needs so they can be primed for learning,” she said.
If you or someone you know can help support Elizabeth in her mission to address these initiatives, please contact the DCPS School Board.