It’s summer time and classes are out of session for the next three months. At the C.K. Steele Charter school in Tallahassee’s Frenchtown neighborhood, most of the light are off, and many of the halls are dark. There are a handful of students in summer programs, but for the most part, it’s quiet. This is a school in transition:
“It’s one of those things where, when you’re moving from public to private, you’ve got to close out everything on the public side," says George James, the private school's new headmaster who has been on the job only a few weeks.
James was to oversee the transition of the C.K. Steele Charter Middle School into a private institution and is the private school’s headmaster. The move comes a year after officials decided to make the school an all-male institution. He is one of only a handful of administrators left.
The decision to take C.K. Steele private means no more state money.
The private school that will stand in the place of C.K. Steele in the upcoming school year will fund itself largely with tuition dollars. Most of that tuition will come from students registering for the state’s corporate tax scholarship program, commonly called school vouchers. The program is largely for low-income families to help them afford private school tuition but was recently expanded to include middle-income families as well. C.K. Steele has signed up 15 kids for the scholarships. The school also plans to tap into the McKay Scholarship program for students with disabilities. It wants a starting class of about 30-35 and will run from grades 6-9. But as James explains, he plans to group students mostly by where they stand academically.
“A person may be classified as an eighth grader, but he could have skill development issues from sixth grade up. So one idea is to have a population of sixth graders, and transition of 6-7th graders. A group of seventh graders, and a transition of 7-8th graders, he says.
As a public charter school, C.K. Steele had received A-grades in the past, but in the last four years, it’s academic performance had fallen to D’s and C’s. Last year, the school received an F. In a letter to the Leon County School Board requesting a dissolution of the school’s charter, Bethel officials cited academics as one of the reasons to take the school private.
"After much reflection and consideration of the ongoing financial and academic challenges, the Bethel Empowerment Board has decided to move the Steele Collins All Male Academy in a different direction," wrote Bethel Empowerment Foundation Chairwoman Elaine Bryant in a letter to the Leon County School Board.
James cites another reason for the transition. Character building.
“To get some of these boys where they need to be academically, we need to work on some character issues. And some of the separation of church-and-state under the public umbrella, doesn’t allow us to do things with them to help turn their lives around," he says.
That means having Bible assemblies and teaching what James says are Christian values. Most of the students attending the school are black. And the achievement gaps between white and minority students—especially boys, is well known. A bill that would allow single-gender classrooms in public schools passed the legislature but was vetoed by Governor Rick Scott. But C.K. Steele’s leaders think the all-boys route is the way to go and plan to continue on that path—as a private school that’s not beholden to the state. Still, James says he plans to hold his students to state expectations—and his teachers plan to teach according to the common core standards in place in a majority of states.