A chronically struggling school district just outside of Tallahassee is one step closer to being Florida’s first charter-run district.
The Jefferson County School Board on March 21 voted unanimously to enter into a contract with Somerset Academy to manage the district schools. Somerset and the district have until April 10 to finalize a contract that meets the Florida Board of Education’s approval.
On March 22, the state board heard from Hershel Lyons, chancellor of public schools in Florida, about Jefferson County’s charter transition. Lyons told the board that Somerset had been one of three charter school operators to present to the Jefferson County School Board in February. However, the state board of education approved Jefferson’s charter conversion “with the provision that any operator must have a proven history of success with similar student demographics,” Lyons said.
For Jefferson’s charter conversion, that meant any charter applicant needed to demonstrate a track record of improving test scores at poor, minority-majority schools. Minority students comprise close to 80 percent of the population at Jefferson’s middle/high school. Nearly 60 percent of the school’s students qualify for the free and reduced lunch program.
That narrowed the contenders down to two. Somerset Academy, whose network of schools has expanded out from Miramar to include schools across the state and into Nevada and Texas, was the only one to submit a formal proposal to the district.
“When schools open in August, there will be an elementary, a middle and a high school sharing one campus,” Lyons said. “Consolidating to one campus, splitting into three schools, will increase funding opportunities, but more importantly increase the laser-like focus on students at all levels.”
Jefferson County has the second highest per-pupil funding in the state but has has been struggling to raise student achievement levels for years. Nearly a third of district students have fled to private school options, while others go to public schools in nearby Leon County. In 2015-16, only 801 students remained in the district’s public schools.
“I liken this to New Orleans,” said Denzel Whitfield. A 2012 graduate of Jefferson High School, and December graduate of Florida Atlantic University, Whitfield is looking forward to an NFL pro-day. He told board members that he had just returned from a visit to New Orleans, and that while the comparison might be a bit extreme, there were some parallels.
“There were people there who couldn’t leave New Orleans; they had to stick with it and trust it and believe in the rebuilding. That’s similar to some of the students in Jefferson County. Some of them can’t leave; they have to stay there, so they’re going to have to stick with the rebuilding.”
State board member Rebecca Fishman Lipsey also referenced New Orleans back in February, when the board first approved Jefferson’s charter turn-around plan.
In the post-Katrina rebuilding period, New Orleans handed control of nearly all local schools over to charter school operators. Lipsey called this “a model, potentially, that can offer some hope … especially where there’s high levels of poverty.”
Whitfield told the board that he could see that the school system had gotten worse even in the years since he had graduated. “It was always a bad school district, but it really has dropped to a bad level now,” he said.
Board member Tom Grady wondered if it would be enough.
“Let’s say we get all the bricks and all the mortar and all the principals and all the leadership right and all the charter pieces right … what do the kids think?” Grady asked Whitfield. “How do we get them to buy in to the concept that we’re doing this for them?”
“If you just can provide a vision of where education can take you and bring them into the understanding that education is very important … they will be more motivated to learn and trust what’s going on,” Whitfield said.
He added that true improvement needed to come from the community, not just from administrative activity.
Local parents share similar feelings in a community Facebook group, Jefferson County Parents for More School Options. In the forum, parents trade information about the school board decisions and encourage action. Posts vary between gripes about the district board and discussions of what the community itself could do better. But one thing is constant: a call for change.
“Everyone, PLEASE, our children need this change,” wrote Michelle Pelt on the group’s wall. “They should be able to go to school here where they belong,” she said, instead of needing to travel to Tallahassee for better schools.
Pelt wrote that she was optimistic about the prospect of a Somerset Academy charter takeover of Jefferson.
“As a Miami native, I know that if they can improve schools down there, they can definitely do it here.”