De’Garryan Andrews began acting at the young age of 4. Growing up in Gadsden County, a rural county west of the state capital, that acting career broadened his horizons.
It helped him land roles on TV and in movies. It propelled him to Florida State University, and then on to Los Angeles to continue his theater studies.
Now he’s returned home, and acting helps inform his practice in one of his school district’s highest-performing, most-expectation-defying English classrooms.
Andrews does not simply stand in front of the class and teach.
He shows students films to teach concepts like cause and effect. He includes pop-culture references to teach them about allusions. He brings life lessons into the classroom, and he is hands-on. If his students are reading a book, he reads it along with them. He encourages seventh- and eighth-graders out of their shells.
He’s able to connect, in part, because he knows what it is like to grow up in Gadsden County, where more than a quarter of the population lives in poverty.
And like the other teachers at Crossroad Academy, an award-winning charter school that defies stereotypes, Andrews knows his students can excel.
“It fuels my drive,” he said. “I know the talent that Gadsden County has, and that is what I am trying to pull out of these children, so that good things can come out of Gadsden County.”
Drawn to teach
Andrews spent three years working on the drama My Brother’s Keeper about the political, social and interpersonal lives of twenty somethings in communities in Los Angeles and New York. In 2008, he took part in the HBO film Recount in Florida, detailing the weeks after the 2000 presidential election.
After he graduated from FSU with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a minor in theatre arts, his passion for the arts took him to Los Angeles, where he attended The American Musical and Dramatic Academy.
But when his mother became sick, Andrews went back to his hometown of Gadsden County to take care of her. He then found his second calling: teaching.
He took a job at Crossroad Academy Charter because their vision aligned with his teaching philosophy. As the school’s mission statement puts it: “To provide a rigorous education that helps prepare students for the 21st century by preparing them academically, socially and culturally to become competitive.”
The school focuses on meeting students’ needs. It keeps classes small to give students individual attention and guidance.
Students in Andrews’ class performed above the district average on both seventh- and eighth-grade English assessments in the spring of 2017. While 30 percent of Gadsden County’s seventh-grade students scored a 3 or higher, 54 percent of students in Andrews’ class scored that high, surpassing even the state average of 52 percent.
For eighth graders, 33 percent in the district earned a 3 or higher, while 43 percent of students in Andrews’ class earned the same designation. However, they trailed the state average of 55 percent.
A pillar of the community
Surrounded by rolling hills just below the Georgia border, Gadsden County is home to 46,036 residents. It’s the only county in Florida where a majority of the population is black.
Victorian homes, some dating back to the Civil War, line the streets of Quincy, the county seat and home of Crossroad Academy.
The county’s history is synonymous with shade tobacco. The crop, used to make cigar wrappers, supported Gadsden’s agricultural industry for 150 years.
Crossroad Academy’s brick building with white trim sits in a secluded area on a windy tree-lined road just outside of town.
Inside, messages inscribed on the walls prompt students to stop and think.
One inscription reads:
The crossroad of a new life decision confronts you with two choices. You will either be stopped by your fears or driven by your possibilities. Either will set your path. Choose wisely.
“Crossroad is about a choice: the choice to go left or right, or up or down,” said Kevin Forehand, the school’s principal. “That is what set the core of our school: making the choice to be successful.”
The school’s B letter grade is the third-highest in the county. Only two nearby magnet schools, Havana Magnet school and Gadsden Elementary Magnet School, score higher. In 2014 the school was one of nine in the state to receive a Blue Ribbon award from the U.S. Department of Education.
There are 525 students at Crossroad, of which 64.4 percent are black and 32.2 percent are Hispanic. All of them qualify for free-or reduced-price lunch.
The charter school specializes in business. It emphasizes entrepreneurship, and students take part in activities like formulating their own business plans. Students also participate in community events such as a Valentine’s Day social to benefit local elder care.
Like Andrews, many teachers and administrators are from Gadsden County. Camry Floyd, the school’s assistant principal, said those roots help students understand they are not alone.
“When we show them we are really invested in them they feel that,” she said. “We are a pillar of our community.”
Parental involvement is also key to the school’s success, Floyd said.
“People who come here chose to come here,” she said. “When you seek something impactful, you make a choice. Having choice empowers people to go beyond the status quo.”
Each parent must volunteer 10 hours of their time to support the school.
“They keep the parents involved with everything they are doing,” said Kimberly Cummings, whose son, Jaylen Martin, is in Andrews’ eighth-grade class. “They not only have high expectations of the students, but high expectations of the parents as well. It takes a community for the student to succeed.”
Motivated by his students
Each student at Crossroad Academy Charter School has a story. As a teacher of seventh- and eighth-graders, Andrews said their stories are what drives him.
“They motivate me,” he said. “They make coming to school worthwhile for me. I love the look on their faces when they grasp the concept they would have struggled with.”
Towering at 6’4 with an infectious laugh, Andrews speaks about teaching with passion.
Andrews’ class mainly focuses on reading. He will sit and read with his students.
“I sit in a desk just like them, and I read the story along with them,” he said. “I pose higher-order questions. ‘If someone did this to you, how would you respond?’ It makes them want to continue reading. If I am engaged, they are engaged, and they are enjoying it.”
Andrews brings film and theater into the classroom to better engage with his students and increase their understanding of American culture.
For example, when the main character’s wife in the movie UP dies, Andrews asks students: What effect does this action have on the main character? This leads to other questions about cause and effect.
Teaching allusions, he points to a popular line from The Wizard of Oz: “We are not in Kansas anymore.” Background knowledge is crucial to reading success – especially for low-income students in a rural community.
“We read that line in a story years ago, and the kids did not know its significance, so I explained where it was from,” he said.
Many Crossroad students must balance academics with life challenges. Some are born to young parents. Some parents work two or more jobs and may not see their children much. Some are from broken homes.
“They come from all different walks of life with a different set of issues that require a little more TLC,” he said.
Forehand said Andrews thrives on building relationships with his students.
“He is a working example of the parable, ‘Kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,’” she said. “This is especially effective with struggling students who often face displeasure with their studies.”
Andrews focuses on closing achievement gaps between his students and their affluent peers elsewhere in the state. But he also focuses on drawing them out of their shells.
Kerwyn Jones-Wilson’s children have both been in Andrews’ class.
“They were really shy, and Andrews taught them to be social and get along with these kids,” Wilson said. “He taught them that they have to go out and network and socialize with all the other kids their age.”
ShaiAnn Sanders, who was previously a student in Andrews’ class, summed up his teaching with one word: enthusiasm.
Andrews said he believes his students can be anything they want to be.
“I want to shine a light on this county that is so often overlooked and show people that intellectuals and talent are both produced in this county,” he said.