TALLAHASSEE — Three students from rural, impoverished Jefferson County on Tuesday testified before Florida’s House Education Committee about dramatic improvements at their schools since 2017, when the local district relinquished control of its traditional public schools to a charter school operator.
Prior to the historic transformation, Jefferson County had been among the state’s lowest-performing districts for about a decade. More than half its high school students had been retained in a grade at least twice. In 2016, just 7 percent of its middle schoolers scored on grade level on state math assessments compared to 26 percent in the next-lowest performing district.
In 2017, the Jefferson County School Board voted unanimously to turn over management of its lone primary and secondary schools to Somerset Academy, based in South Florida. Although the state is home to dozens of charters that were converted from traditional public schools, never before had converted charters comprised an entire school system.
Ayana Bradley, a junior at the Jefferson County K-12 high school, told lawmakers Tuesday that before turnaround efforts, students were unmotivated, as many teachers dressed unprofessionally and seemed more interested in gossiping with students than educating them.
“There was no one there for us,” she said. “We had to learn to push ourselves, and some kids didn’t know how to do that. Sometimes they just wouldn’t come to school. Somerset taught us we have a chance at life.”
She added: “We’re not just numbers, we actually mean something. Now, people believe in us – that we can become better and mean something to someone.”
Ayana is now taking dual enrollment classes through Doral College. She wants to attend the University of Central Florida and become a nurse.
The schools’ turnaround was assisted by Academica, a charter school service and support organization in Miami, and Doral College President Doug Rodriguez, who has acted as a consultant since the charter takeover.
“The district had consistently low performance and it was under oversight of the Department of Education,” Rodriguez said. “The district had shrunk in size. There should be about 1,500 students in the district. In 2016-17, there were about 715 students. It’s grown as the school became more successful.”
Rodriguez described Jefferson County as a community with many needs. All students in the district are on a free and reduced-price meal program, and many families in the area do not have their own transportation.
Changes that spurred improvement included hiring new teachers, while retaining many with 25 or more years of experience; philanthropic and logistical support from Academica; and an investment of $5.1 million from Somerset Academy – money that came from loans and grants, Rodriguez said.
“And we changed the teachers’ pay scale,” he said. “We made them among the highest-paid teachers in the state, while they had previously been among the lowest.”
Principal Cory Oliver said major renovations to the schools’ campus have been instrumental in the district’s turnaround.
Students said they wanted a culinary arts program, so a state-of-the-art cooking lab was added, as were eight new portable classrooms, an arts building, a new band room, and a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) lab.
The district has begun seeing academic gains.
In 2017-18, Jefferson County’s passing rate jumped 60 percent in math for grades 3-8. No other district in Florida came close to that rate of improvement. The previous year, Jefferson County was the state’s lowest-performing district in that category.
In 2017-18, six Jefferson County high school students were taking dual enrollment classes; this year, the number has grown to nearly 40. And this year, for the first time in a decade, two seniors have been accepted to the University of Florida.
Jamal Washington, an eighth-grader, told legislators that before the charter takeover, students didn’t have educators they could talk to about personal issues.
“There was no one to share our feeling or emotions with,” said Jamal, who wants to be an air-traffic controller. “Since Somerset came, everybody’s trying to get on track and graduate with their class. I want everybody to graduate with me.”
Freshman Alexis Arnold, an aspiring pediatrician, agreed.
“It’s now a contest of who gets the highest grades,” she said. “Everybody’s paying attention in class and nobody’s skipping anymore. You don’t see as many fights.”
Responding to a question from committee vice chair Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, Oliver said the decision to allow a charter school organization to take over the district wasn’t overwhelmingly popular.
“The school district is the No. 1 employer in the county,” he said. “That community bridge is something we’ll continue to work on. But we’re building a huge network of support, so people can see the changes and growth.”
Committee chairwoman Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mt. Dora, said she was moved by the students’ testimony.
“They are why we make sacrifices to be here,” she said. “This is the fruit of the good consequences of good policies that have been passed.”