JACKSONVILLE – Dana Roberts had high hopes for her 5-year-old son, DJ, as she readied him for his first day of pre-school.
Remembering her own pleasant school experience, she expected her bright, inquisitive little boy soon would be challenged by caring educators who would coax away his shyness and address his difficulty sounding out letters and grasping a pencil.
She trusted that once he settled among children his age, he would begin to forget the taunts and bullying he suffered from teenagers at the family’s apartment complex.
Instead, she found DJ’s teacher overwhelmed and too busy with other students to pay attention to him. The teacher told her DJ’s never-ending questions – Why do fuses blow? Why do eggs change color when they’re cooked? – were a distraction to his classmates.
Based on the scant morsels DJ shared with her at the end of each long day, she worried he was withdrawing further into his shell.
Then the principal suggested she send DJ to a private school where he could receive more individual attention. Dana was crushed.
“When I was in school, teachers worked hard to make a difference in the lives of children, preparing them for their future,” she said. “That’s what I wanted for DJ.”
With private school tuition beyond the family’s reach, Dana and her husband, James, decided to take a chance and transferred DJ to a relatively new K-8 tuition-free public charter school near their home in west Jacksonville.
It wasn’t an easy choice for Dana, who describes herself as “a very in-your-face parent.” She pulled no punches on her first visit to Duval Charter School at Westside.
“I told them, ‘I’ll put as much effort into your school as you put into my son,’” Dana said.
She was cautiously optimistic when she learned Duval Charter values parental involvement and that there would be opportunities for her to use the skills she’d honed over 10 years as an events planner for Books-a-Million. She was impressed with the school’s calm, disciplined environment and its strict uniform policy.
Most of all, she liked the flexibility Duval Charter teachers have to address the individual needs of their students rather then being guided solely by a rigid curriculum map.
Dana saw that flexibility clearly demonstrated in Melissa Singleton’s kindergarten classroom.
Singleton, who came to Duval Charter two years ago after working for a decade at a traditional public school in Tennessee, deftly alternates between slowing things down for children who are struggling and speeding things up for those who are moving ahead more quickly.
In DJ’s case, Singleton used a bit of both strategies. She took extra time to help him develop his fine motor skills – gripping a pencil and using scissors to cut paper – and worked at his pace to turn letters into sounds.
Once DJ was able to read words, and then sentences, she encouraged him to spend 30 minutes of class time writing in a journal.
She also patiently encouraged him with his math skills, nudging him upward until he could count to 100 in multiples of 5s and 10s.
“I was worried about the little guy at first,” she said. “When I gave him a pencil or a pair of scissors he just cringed. Now he’s like, ‘I can do this.’ ”
Dana said the difference in DJ is startling. He’s begun to read on his own, although his favorite book is still the Seuss classic “Green Eggs and Ham.” While Dana thinks he’ll be an engineer when he grows up, he recently announced his intention to become an author.
His social skills have improved as well. No longer the shy child he was last fall, he’s joined “play club,” a drama program for kindergarteners, and calls four classmates his best friends.
He collected his share of love notes when the kindergarteners celebrated Valentine’s Day – and scored kisses from two little girls.
“He turns beet red when Mommy kids him about it,” Dana said.
She has no doubt DJ will be ready for first grade because his test scores show he’s already performing above kindergarten level. He was on the cusp prior to winter break and moved up in mid-January.
Dana noticed right away his homework had become more challenging and was happy about it.
“A couple of times he’s said, ‘Mommy this is hard,’” Dana said. “I told him, ‘Hard is good. It will help you learn.’ ”
As DJ has made progress, Dana has made good on her promise to the school. She’s become a familiar face, chaperoning field trips, volunteering at book fairs and working on the food line in the cafeteria.
As Christmas approached, she encouraged DJ’s dad to dress up as Santa Claus and wander the halls with fellow parents dressed as elves.
Duval Charter assistant principal Courtney Lane, citing Dana as an example, says strong parent involvement creates a family environment and shows the students there are plenty of adults who care about them.
That’s of special importance at a school where almost three-quarters of students are considered economically disadvantaged.
“We simply can’t do what we do without parental support,” Lane said. “We depend and thrive on it.”
Dana is confident DJ has landed in the right place – the kind of school she’d been looking for, one that cares about her son and plays to his strengths.
She’s excited about his potential over the next eight years.
“Duval Charter moves beyond the standard,” she said. “Rather than asking, ‘What are this child’s limitations?’ they’re always asking, ‘What can this child do?’ ”
About Florida’s charter schools
Florida is home to more than 650 public charter schools. They enroll 280,000 students, with more than half qualifying for free- or reduced-price lunches. As of September 2017, the state classified 171 charter schools as academically high-performing.