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Mansell: Jefferson County ‘Charter School Meltdown’ Article Hit the Mark

National education expert, with Jefferson County experience, says things are bad but can be fixed with the resumption of local control

// April 6, 2022,

6:52 pm

Updated:April 7, 2022

OPINION

Creating the mess

After reading Our Tallahassee’s take on Jefferson County’s ongoing charter school meltdown, and their transition back to localized control of one of the consistently lowest-performing districts in Florida, it occurred to me that most folks in our community are unfamiliar with the extent to which outsiders have already attempted to intervene. I was part of school-based and district leadership during previous state and outside agency takeovers and got a first-hand glimpse at what worked, what wasted time, and the elements at play that were simply beyond our control. 

During the FLDOE takeover that occurred prior to Somerset’s five-year contract, agency representatives in each core subject were stationed in our classrooms on a consistent basis. Their best and brightest coached the district’s teachers and administration and directly instructed students. 

If their representatives were unable to achieve the gains they sought, and Somerset produced only Ds, how can they expect the district to hit the ground running, regroup entirely, and show gains to a C or higher in one year? Plus, with the removal of FSA and common core, one important question remains unanswered: how will schools even be graded this year? 

If we were to take any high-performing school and incentivize a mass exodus of families with additional resources to invest in extracurriculars, transportation, and tutoring, leaving behind a higher concentration of students with significant, unidentified learning needs (and few resources to accommodate those needs), with a high population of single parents and high parental incarceration rates, low familial involvement, and a high number of migrant and undocumented learners, we can create what Jefferson faces in any other school. In forcing this exodus, we did not remove the “good kids” – we removed meaningful, necessary resources that are established predictors of educational success. 

A newcomer who presents with significant educational or behavioral challenges with no current diagnoses can usually be staffed into the Exceptional Student Education program and receive targeted intervention services in Leon County in 6 months to 1 year. This is often a 2-3 year process in Jefferson, as families often lack access to diagnostic testing services. That’s 2-3 years that a student will receive zero targeted accommodations for actual needs, which impacts their assessment scores and overall performance. Time is of the essence with developmental and learning delays, and remediation can take far longer when missed milestones remain unchecked and unaided. 

Do I really think that Jefferson can hit the ground running, be short-staffed, and already lose points for things like mismatched teacher certifications and overflowing class sizes, and end up with a C in one year? 

It depends. I think it’s important to consider why people turn to charters, to begin with. What do they offer that public schools lack? By acting more like a good charter school, and learning from past missteps, significant progress can be made. 

One of the best intervention methods used previously was the SRA Reading Mastery and Corrective Reading program. By 3rd grade, all other core subjects rely a great deal on reading fluency, and without testing accommodations in place for assessments to be read aloud to learners in non-Language Arts subjects, students who lag in reading will end up performing poorly on all subjects. 

Jefferson could multi-age group their learners by ability levels, focus on reading, math, novelty, and adventure, implement portfolio grading for progress monitoring, and break away from differentiated instruction models that waste educator time planning endless access points. These popular charter school strategies can easily be embraced by public schools hoping to better serve all learners. 

Additionally, forming an alliance with FSU’s Multidisciplinary Center could help decrease turnaround time on necessary diagnostic testing for staffing requirements.

One of the groups to consistently fall through the cracks in Jefferson are the gifted students, who often do not receive challenging enough coursework, leading to boredom and behavior problems. Multi-age ability-based groupings properly scaffold learners by focusing time and energy on the student’s current level, without resulting in frustration and fatigue. 

Many students in Title 1 schools attend extended day programs and spend the majority of their daylight hours on campus, so allowing more time for exploration of independent interests and creative play gives these children a much-needed break, which in turn allows for better concentration during core academic instruction.

For upper grades, using the existing automotive shop on campus to promote alternatives like vocational training, incentivizing dual enrollment by providing transportation to nearby community college campuses, and promoting unbridled access to credit recovery could make a meaningful difference long-term in the lives of students in Jefferson, and impact the dwindling number of graduating seniors. 

When faced with many enticing alternatives, it is nearly impossible to get parents to take a chance by sending their children into a district perceived as failing. Jefferson could build a bridge by creating à la carte access to extracurriculars for local homeschoolers and private school attendees. I believe that for many, the district would need to offer something these families cannot access elsewhere. That is not an impossible task, but certainly complicates things considerably.

If the eventual state decision is to force kids into surrounding school districts, this would mean putting children as young as 2 years old on a bus for up to 4 hours per day, with parents in a different town who often have no means of transportation. This is by no means best practice, and will only serve to degrade this beautifully close-knit community.

Hope where there hasn’t been much

When at rock bottom, it is said that there is nowhere to go but up, but the Jefferson school system has gone sideways, upside-down, and backward, all at the whim of our education leadership, with children of the district serving as guinea pigs for a system that doesn’t quite understand the unique needs faced by the capital’s nearby neighbor. 

What makes any school a great school is not its letter grade. Jefferson still has a heart that I have seen lacking in many higher-performing schools. It has teachers, staff, and administrators who put every ounce of themselves into jumping through every hoop set before them, only to be deemed failures. 

A quote from the Our Tallahassee article stuck with me:

“If Jefferson can maintain its resolve and commitment to success in the years to come,” previous Commissioner of Education Pam Stewart wrote, “then not only will the students of Jefferson County benefit, but the county may itself serve as a model for other similar school districts.”

Jefferson can still serve as a model for other districts. But that might involve being open to creative approaches that provide an alternate, more tailored route to success. All is not lost.

Megan Mansell is a local author and contributor to Brownstone Institute and Rational Ground publications. She serves parents across the country as a subject matter expert in risk assessment, compliance, mediation, and targeted accommodations for special populations.

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