General Sessions Speakers
Opening General Session
Wednesday, October 18, 2023 • 2:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m. • Palms Ballroom
Commissioner Manny Diaz, Jr.
Commissioner of Education, Florida Department of Education
Commissioner Manny Diaz, Jr. is a lifelong educator, having begun his career in education teaching Social Studies and coaching baseball in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools system in 1994. He then served as an Assistant Principal from 2007 to 2013 until becoming the Chief Operating Officer at Doral College. He was appointed Commissioner of Education by the Florida State Board of Education effective June 1, 2022.
Commissioner Diaz received his Bachelor’s degree from St. Thomas University, a Master’s degree in education from Nova Southeastern, and completed a Harvard Graduate School of Education program for principals.
He served with distinction in the Florida Legislature, originally elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 2012, where he quickly became known as an expert and champion of education. During his tenure in the Florida House of Representatives, he served as Chairman of both the Education Choice and Innovation Committee and the PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee. In 2018, he was elected to the Florida Senate where he served as Chairman of the Education Committee. During his legislative career he sponsored numerous educational initiatives to support Florida’s students, families, and public-school teachers.
A devoted husband and father of four, he understands the importance and value of providing students with a world-class education and is honored to continue serving Florida as the Commissioner of Education.
Founder & CEO, The Center for Education Reform
Jeanne Allen works to advance policies and practices that ensure children have access to 21st century education, and the programs and schools that best meet their needs. She founded and serves as CEO of the Center for Education Reform (CER) where for almost 3 decades it has influenced critical changes in how US education operates. In 2021 CER launched the $1 million Yass Prize for Sustainable, Transformational, Outstanding and Permissionless Education - the Pulitzer of Education - in partnership with Forbes, and the "STOP" Award Initiative to reward education providers who perform for underserved students, no matter the challenges.
Additionally, Ms. Allen is a regular contributor to numerous blogs and has published hundreds of articles in journals and reports, as well as in media outlets such as Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, NBC Nightly News, Fox, Fox and Friends, and Fox Business, CNN & CNN Headline News, Wall Street Journal Opinion Live and Dozens of other local cable and national radio programs.
Chairman of the Governing Board, Step Up For Students
John F. Kirtley has co-founded three private equity firms in Tampa that invest in management buyouts of smaller middle market companies. For over twenty years he has been involved in the educational choice movement, working to empower low-income families to be able to select the learning environment that best suits their children. He is currently the Chairman of Step Up For Students, a non-profit organization that administers five of Florida’s choice programs, serving over 200,000 low students. He is also the Co-Chairman of the Florida Federation For Children, a political entity that works to elect Florida legislators of both parties that support educational choice. He is also Vice Chairman of the American Federation For Children and the Florida Charter School Alliance.
Founder & CEO, Academica
Fernando Zulueta is founder and CEO of Academica, an innovative global education organization. Academica serves more than 200 charter schools in 12 states. More than 1,000 schools in Europe, Latin America, and Asia offer Academica’s International Dual Diploma program.
For 25 years, Mr. Zulueta has helped establish public charter schools. Academica schools rank among the nation's best, recognized for many achievements. The US Department of Education has awarded them 20 National Blue Ribbons.
He is on the National Charter School Hall of Fame. He has served on the Board of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He chaired Florida’s Charter School Review Panel. He is a co-founder of the Florida Consortium of Charter Schools.
He is the founder of Doral College — an accredited four year non-profit college. Doral provides free dual enrollment and college acceleration. It has awarded thousands of concurrent college degrees to high school students.
He has received awards for his work advancing the education of disadvantaged students. Academica schools reduce the income achievement gap. He presents at conferences on how charter schools disrupt the poverty cycle.
Skylar Zander, Moderator
State Director, Florida, Americans for Prosperity
Skylar Zander currently serves as the State Director for Americans for Prosperity-Florida (AFP-FL), an organization dedicated to breaking policy barriers to ensure a freer society.
AFP-FL chapter has eight offices and more than 25 staff members spanning from Pensacola to the Florida Keys. Americans for Prosperity overall has 38 state chapters and is the biggest grassroots organization in the nation.
AFP-FL spends time and effort to endorse policy champions, then advocates for endorsed candidates during campaign season by door knocking, making phone calls, and sending mail. Following elections, AFP-FL supports those candidates to pass good policies.
This election cycle AFP-FL endorsed candidates including Congressional members Kat Cammack (03), Laurel Lee (15), Maria Elvira Salazar (27), Governor Ron DeSantis, and 35 additional state legislative candidates. Additionally, the organization had more than 600,000 voter contacts during action grassroots activity.
Prior to joining AFP-FL, Zander served as a Senior Associate with Strategos Public Affairs with a focus on advancing positive education policy change in Florida.
Zander has also served as an aide in the Florida House of Representatives and as an elected member of the Clay County Soil and Water Commission.
Zander is a proud supporter of his local community and serves on the board of The Village Square and the Tallahassee Regional Board of Policy Advisors for the James Madison Institute.
Zander has received recognition from Florida Politics as a 30 under 30 rising star in 2015, Top 100 Influencers in 2020 and most recently Top 150 in 2022. Zander currently resides in Tallahassee with his wife Lindsey, daughter Emma, and son John.
Morning General Session
Thursday, October 19, 2023 • 8:30 a.m. - 9:30 a.m. • Palms Ballroom
2024 Florida Teacher of the Year
Adrianna Swearingen, a media specialist at Northside Elementary School in Bay County, was selected as the 2024 Florida Department of Education Teacher of the Year from nearly 185,000 Florida public school teachers. Mrs. Swearingen will serve as the Christa McAuliffe Ambassador for Education, elevating and celebrating the teaching profession by promoting the contributions of Florida educators.
While serving as an educator for the past seven years, Adrianna has focused on developing her students into the next generation of leaders. She facilitates student-run morning broadcasts and pioneers the Accelerated Reader Program, cultivating an environment of confidence in her students. When not in the classroom, she volunteers her time to the Northside Elementary Technology Club, Lego Club and Yearbook Committee.
Transitioning from a classroom teacher to a media specialist in 2021, Mrs. Swearingen was a key factor in Northside Elementary’s overall school grade increasing by 12 percentage points, English Language Arts (ELA) learning gains rising 21 percentage points, and learning gains for the lowest quartile of students in ELA growing a whopping 41 percentage points.
Adrianna holds a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership from the University of West Florida and a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education from Florida State University. She is proud of her military childhood and loves how the exposure to different cultures, learning and perspectives continues to positively impact her life both personally and professionally. Adrianna is a proud mom of two boys and wife of a Marine.
Deputy Commissioner for Accountability, Research and Measurement, Florida Department of Education
Juan Copa leads the Division of Accountability, Research and Measurement at the Florida Department of Education. This division is responsible for the department’s assessment and accountability systems and the data reporting and analyses for supporting such systems and informing education policy. Mr. Copa has over 20 years of experience in effective and strategic policy development and analysis, with wide knowledge of the legislative process, administrative rule development and policy implementation. Prior to this appointment as Deputy Commissioner in September of 2013, Mr. Copa served as a State Policy Director with the Foundation for Excellence in Education. Between 2005 and February of 2013, Mr. Copa served in various capacities with the Florida Department of Education, including serving as the Director of Research and Analysis in Educator Performance, where he led the development of value added models measuring student learning growth for use in evaluating educator performance, and as Bureau Chief for Research and Evaluation, where he lead the office responsible for calculation of statewide school accountability measures, including School Grades. Prior to joining the Department, Mr. Copa served as a legislative analyst for the Florida Legislature’s Council for Education Policy Research and Improvement. Mr. Copa holds a Master’s Degree in Political Science from Florida State University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from the University of Miami.
Closing General Session
Friday, October 20, 2023 • 11:00 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. • Palms Ballroom
Executive Director, Blautism Education
Whitby-Davis is a charter school parent and CEO of Blautism Inc., a nonprofit organization designed to address the resources, challenges, advocacy, literacy, and education of children on the Autism spectrum.
Partner, Strategos Group
Jim Horne served as the State of Florida’s first appointed Commissioner of Education under Governor Jeb Bush. During his tenure as a Florida State Senator, Jim was the leader of education policy and budget reform. He was the catalyst behind many of the education reforms spearheaded by Governor Bush, many of which have become national models. As a key leader in Governor Bush’s plans for education reform in the Senate, he was tapped by Governor Bush in 2001 to take the reins of the Nation’s inaugural K-20 system of education. As Commissioner, he reorganized three separate Pre-K-20 delivery systems (Universities, Community Colleges, and K-12) into one seamless system of education. Jim was also responsible for implementing the most robust education reforms in the Nation and overseeing the distribution of the entire Pre-K-20 budget of nearly $20 billion dollars.