Five hundred students sat cross-legged on the floor inside Bok Academy Middle School’s cafeteria, where Principal Damien Moses, a gentle giant with a booming voice, greeted them. “Great moments don’t happen by accident,’’ he told them.
They happen, he said, because someone had a vision.
Then he asked all the teachers at the A-rated Lake Wales, Fla., charter school to stand as he announced that Bok Academy was one of 43 schools in the nation to be designated an Apple School of Distinction. The morning celebration focused on the award, which recognized the school’s commitment to providing every student with an iPad, Nook and laptop in the classroom.
But it also marked just how far the Lake Wales Charter Schools system has come.
In 2004, it took over five district schools. Now the system has six schools, a $30 million operating budget, 400 employees and 3,800 students. It’s on the fast-track to becoming a state-designated “high-performing” charter system, meaning its schools are top performers academically and financially.
“We are now at a point where we can see the benefits,’’ said Betty Wojcik, executive director of the Lake Wales Area Chamber of Commerce, a city commissioner and one of the charter system’s trustees.
Lake Wales is a worthy stop on the school choice map, even in a state that now boasts 579 charters. It’s a story as much about small-town pride as it is about alternative ways to govern schools. Community leaders who launched the effort were motivated by a common fear: that if their schools continued to decline, so would their idyllic city of 14,000 in the rolling hills and orange groves of Central Florida.
Striking out on their own has meant embracing a do-it-yourself attitude from everything to serving hot lunches, to fixing school buses, to lobbying Tallahassee for money. It still presents big challenges. The number of low-income kids in Lake Wales’ schools ranges from 50 percent to 90 percent. But if anybody regrets bushwhacking a path on education’s new frontier, they’re few and far between.
“Having choice and that little bit of competition has made everyone more effective,’’ Wojcik said.
Community unites for the cause
Back in 2002, supporters said, Lake Wales’ schools had too many C and D grades from the state. Students were falling behind. Buildings were in decline. Families were fleeing to other communities. Some residents and business owners blamed the Polk County school district.
“Some felt our needs were being overlooked – some would say ignored,’’ said Frances McMichael, a former district employee who serves as community outreach coordinator for the Lake Wales system.
The disenchanted mobilized. Led by local attorney Robin Gibson, they began the serious study of converting five elementary schools, one middle school and high school into charters.
The idea wasn’t new in Florida or in Polk County. Polk had the state’s first conversion charter school – a traditional public school that is transformed when a majority of teachers and parents votes for the change. And it wasn’t really new for Lake Wales; the city operated its own schools until 1947, when the county consolidated them into one district.
Still, going charter was controversial.
“I was not in favor of it,’’ said Debra Wright, a former Polk principal who now serves as a district school board member representing Lake Wales.
Like others, she worried what charters would teach, what expectations they would have and how much money they would need. She feared what would happen to Lake Wales if the schools didn’t succeed.
Her husband, Clint, had been an area supervisor for the Polk district, so he knew the struggles in Lake Wales. Although the couple had moved away to work for the Broward County school district, Clint returned to become the first superintendent of the Lake Wales system. Debra followed to help turn around some of the charter elementary schools.
The experience opened her eyes to how education was evolving, she said. Since charters cropped up, the district has boosted its choice offerings, from International Baccalaureate programs to virtual education to more than 40 career academies.
Supporters of the Lake Wales charter system, a not-for-profit corporation, say the competition has resulted in improvements to the two district schools that remain in the area. The district, for example, added an arts academy to McLaughlin Middle School, which was graded a D by the state last year.
But relations between the two systems haven’t always been smooth. And there are still tensions.
The Lake Wales system wants McLaughlin Middle to join it. Jesse Jackson, who became system superintendent in 2008, said the idea is to provide a seamless education system, and to alleviate the need to remediate so many students once they come to Lake Wales Charter High School.
But conversion votes at the school failed in 2003 and in 2005, when teachers so overwhelmingly rejected the idea that charter officials decided not to poll parents. Some contributed the defeat to the dismissal of 11 teachers at Lake Wales High near the time of the vote. Teachers didn’t want to lose their job security.
But Lake Wales Charter Schools hasn’t given up.
“We’re extremely passionate about making sure we do everything in our power to serve children,’’ Jackson said. “And that’s all children.’’
Exploring unchartered territory
Lake Wales is the only charter system in Florida to operate as a local education authority.
The 2011 designation gives it – and not Polk County Public Schools – the authority to manage federal programs such as Title I. The move resulted in an additional $1 million for his schools, Jackson said.
The victory followed others now considered key to helping the Florida charter movement as a whole.
Lake Wales successfully lobbied for Bok Academy to qualify for capital funding from the state in the first year, instead of waiting three years as the law required. It also fought to reduce the administrative fees it paid the district, saving the Lake Wales system nearly $1 million the first year, Jackson said.
The district was hit hard when it lost some of its funding to oversee charters, said Hazel Sellers, a four-term Polk County school board member. “Now we don’t get enough money.’’
She also worries what impact charter schools, in general, have on enrollment in district schools. “We’ve built schools based on certain needs,’’ she said. “Then a charter comes in and a school is under capacity. We still have to operate it or we may have to close it. That’s a painful thing to do.’’
But the district has to get along with charters, Sellers said, and Lake Wales Charter Schools has been a worthy partner to work through many of the concerns. “We cannot afford to be divided,” she said.
More independence has brought new challenges, though, to the Lake Wales system.
When it took over the federal lunch program from the district, administrators hired a company to prepare food at the high school then deliver it to the rest of the schools. That didn’t work. “Lettuce turned brown and we threw away more than the kids ate,’’ Jackson said.
Now a local vendor prepares the meals at each school. Jackson said they are saving money and feeding more children.
The system also bought its own buses, downsizing from six to three to save money. Maintenance is provided by a local company that specializes in truck and bus repairs.
“When you are a small system and run locally, you’re able to make local decisions,’’ Jackson said. “We don’t allow things to linger on.’’
It comes back to having that vision, school leaders say.
“We had the hope,” Principal Moses told the students at the morning celebration. “It really has changed education in the community. So students, let’s get ready for the ride.”
Coming tomorrow: A look at Robin Gibson, the man behind the mission to create a community-based charter school system in Lake Wales.