JACKSONVILLE – Landon Waters was unhappy about moving from Philadelphia to North Florida with his mother and older twin brothers in 2014. His mood didn’t improve when he started attending kindergarten in his new neighborhood school.
He wasn’t a bad student; he just didn’t like school very much. His mom, LaTanya Urquhart, said he was more interested in playing with pencils and daydreaming than listening to his teacher. He often threw tantrums or cried when she dropped him off in the morning.
LaTanya could see why Landon was struggling.
“The school was so rigid and restrictive,” she said. “When they were done with their work, a lot of times they’d just sit there at their desk, doing nothing. It was like torture for him. He likes to learn. I know, because we would do little science experiments at home and he’d love it, and he loves math.”
Landon’s life began to change after one of LaTanya’s friends told her about the school where she was a teacher, Seaside Charter San Jose. The A-rated K-8 charter school, administered by Seaside School Consortium, which operates two schools in Jacksonville, was about 30 miles from LaTanya’s home. LaTanya applied, and Landon entered as a third-grader.
It took a while for Landon to adjust to his new surroundings.
“He mostly struggled socially,” Seaside principal Rick Pinchot said. “At first, he got angry way more often and had trouble relaying his thoughts. He’d get mad and shout at people. It was nothing physical, but he could scare a child or two.”
The school operates under the Waldorf educational philosophy, a central focus of which is to stimulate students’ imagination and creativity. Seaside students “stay in touch with nature,” Pinchot said, tending a large garden and sharing the duties of planting seeds, watering plants and harvesting their crops. At Seaside, play time is almost as important as the school’s rigorous academics.
“We really focus on three principles: Be kind and respectful, always tell the truth, and everyone belongs,” he said. “I see Landon every morning at 7, and he and I will have a talk about football or his brothers.”
Pinchot said he suspects no educator has ever done that for Landon, but it appears to be something the child needed.
“I think he feels like he belongs, and should be here,” Pinchot said.
The values Landon has developed at Seaside have helped him overcome the culture shock of his move to Florida and the resulting angst of being away from family and longtime friends.
He has become a dedicated student with career ambitions that shift like the nearby Atlantic tide. One week, he wants to be a teacher when he grows up. By the next week, he has a brand-new idea.
After school on a recent weekday, he announced that he wants to play in the National Football League. LaTanya suspects this is a nod to his 15-year old brothers, who play football at their neighborhood school where they are thriving.
Landon, now a fourth-grader, also has declared he wants to become mayor.
“That way, after I retire, I won’t just be sitting at home and doing nothing,” he said. “I could run my own town.”
The 9-year-old, who is learning fractions, said he loves math. He’s also been enjoying his science class, where the students made posters to demonstrate how the school can conserve water. He rose to the challenge of a recent history project that involved the construction of Viking ships from cork board, Styrofoam and clay.
Landon’s ship capsized – he realized belatedly that he had used too much clay – but he didn’t get frustrated. Instead, he kept trying.
“I just took out some clay and used more toothpicks to keep everything together better,” he said.
Listening to Landon talk about his project brought a smile to LaTanya’s face.
“Those kids took that project and just ran with it,” she said. “Every student was engaged.”
LaTanya is so happy with Seaside that she took a part-time job in the school’s extended-day program.
“They really do use their environment to help them learn,” she said. “They’re not restricted to sitting in desks all day. They’re encouraged to use their imagination, and they have the freedom to learn the way they learn best.”
In a place where they all belong.
About Florida’s charter schools
Florida is home to 658 public charter schools, enrolling more than 313,500 students. Sixty-two percent are black or Hispanic; more than half qualify for free or reduced-price meals. The Florida Department of Education classifies 192 charter schools as academically high-performing.