Editor’s note: This guest post is from Jesse L. Jackson, superintendent of Lake Wales Charter Schools in Lake Wales, Fla.
By early 2000, the once great tradition of outstanding local schools for Lake Wales’ citizens had reached a point of decline. It was at that time when concerned citizens, with the support of the Lake Wales Area Chamber of Commerce education committee, decided to do something to reverse that trend. What emerged was not only an accountability driven charter school system, but, unexpectedly, the town’s biggest employer.
Since 2004, when five Lake Wales’ public schools were converted to public charter schools, and with the addition of Bok Academy charter school and the International Baccalaureate program to Lake Wales High School, a significant reversal has taken place in terms of quality and participation in our local schools. Many families that had previously decided to seek other opportunities to educate their children outside Lake Wales have found favor in our system, which now serves approximately 4,000 students. While the majority live in Lake Wales, many come from surrounding towns. Lake Wales Charter Schools pioneers such as Robin Gibson, Clint Horne, David Ullman and many others could feel quite satisfied when reflecting on the impact of their effort.
However, when the details are analyzed, it becomes quite clear the system offers more than just a great education for this community. The mere shift of the schools’ management from district headquarters in Bartow to Lake Wales has profoundly impacted Lake Wales’ economy.
Our principals are chief executive officers. They have the autonomy and responsibility to make decisions regarding the most effective way to run their schools, including financial matters. With each school’s annual budget ranging from roughly $2.5 million to $6 million, managing the operations of our charter schools is a huge responsibility. The autonomy provides our principals the freedom to make decisions regarding their engagement with businesses. Along with this freedom, they and other members of our leadership team have the responsibility and are compelled to adhere to the strictest finance and accounting principles to ensure our system’s finances are managed properly.
Our success as an effective school system has enabled us to evolve into a locally based multi-million dollar enterprise with an annual budget of more than $30 million.