This week, thousands of students across the Big Bend head back to the classrooms for the start of another school year. While its business as usual for many of those districts, in Jefferson County--the worst school district in the state-- there’s a lot at stake for the teachers, administrators and its superintendent.
Jefferson County School Superintendent Al Cooksey is very blunt about the current state of the district he now runs.
“We have a lot of problems. He was responsible but Bill was a one term superintendent and you can’t do the job in a term, that’s what I’m saying,” Cooksey explains during the short drive to the county's only elementary school.
The "Bill" Cooksey refers to is former Jefferson Superintendent Bill Brumfield who lost his reelection campaign two years ago.
Cooksey is a self-described outsider. He graduated from Jefferson County High school, but left to go to college. He served in the military and worked as a football coach in Levy County, but he never forgot home. His family has a farm in Jefferson.
“I don’t know anybody—the employees I’m speaking of-- I know the people in the community. I had been reading how bad the schools were, the grades were going down, down down. A friend said, ‘why don’t you run for superintendent?’ and that’s how I became superintendent.”
Now in his second year as chief educator of the district, Cooksey has made some changes. He shuffled his elementary school teachers around to teach different grade levels and he admits that didn’t make him very many friends. Monday marked the first day of school for Jefferson County. And Shelley Ryan, a math coach at Jefferson Elementary who is from Thomasville, Georgia, says she’s looking forward to having a fresh start—especially when it comes to new state tests, and leaning standards, called Common Core or Florida Standards, that are going into effect this year.
“We’re still not there yet. It’s been a difficult transition. No training...no math training, and we’re hoping to get that in soon," she says.
Ryan says she’s grateful the legislature implemented a one-year pause on penalties associated with poor performance—buying Jefferson more time to get accustomed to the new expectations.
In Jefferson County, all the children are eligible for the federal free lunch program. The elementary school is almost 40 years old and showing signs of its age, doors that creak open, old, rusting pipes and mismatched air conditioning units. One of the schools’ buildings burned down last year. An empty gray, cement slab marks the place it used to be. There’s mold on the bricks outside and Cooksey thinks some of those old walls may hold asbestos. But he’s hopeful. And so is Elijah Key, Jefferson Elementary School’s new principal.
“This is the second failing school I’ve been in charge of. You have to change the culture, you have to change the mindset of the teachers and the students. I think that process has already started, just with higher expectations and change in general. There’s been a lot of change in the past three weeks," before dashing off to another side of his school.
But change is hard. Many of the district’s students have a disability. The population is largely poor. There’s a large Hispanic population, and for many students, English is their second language. There’s infighting, a shrinking student population, and funding is tight. And as the community has lost faith in its public schools, many people have sought out private options, adding to the tension. But Cooksey, and his teachers and administrators, are looking to turn things around this year. And Cooksey is staking is re-election on it.
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This story is part of a reporting partnership between WFSU and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s American Graduate Initiative.