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Gadsden School District Says "No Excuses" for Academics

By Lynn Hatter

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-907303.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – We've been bringing you reports on the state of schools in Florida's capital region. We've heard how Leon is dealing with budgets and class size rules; how Jefferson is working to rebuild its financial and academic structure; and how Wakulla has managed to excel even in a tight economy. Now, we travel west on Highway 90 to Gadsden County, where as Lynn Hatter reports, the district has been focusing on one thing -- boosting academic performance.

School is out for the summer, but it is still business as usual at the Gadsden County School Board building. For the last few years, the district has been working to rebuild itself and shed its reputation as a failing school district. It's been doing that under the direction of Superintendent Reginald James.

"Six years ago when I took this office, nine of the twelve graded schools were either D or F, mostly F."

Back then, the highest rated schools in Gadsden only reached a C-grade. So, the district created a ninety-minute reading block and adopted a math program called Acaletics, which ties sports principles to math and shows kids how the two relate to each other. Today, there are four A-schools, one B and six C-schools. The county's magnet school boasted the highest third grade reading and math FCAT scores in the region, with 95-percent of students reading at grade level, and 100-percent at grade level in math.

Gadsden is a majority-minority district which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. Its hospital just recently reopened after being closed for five years. James says he only sees opportunity.

"I don't use any of that as a crutch. I think it's incumbent on us to realize that all students can learn. I think that's why I adopted the "no excuses" motto and forged ahead with that as I my motto."

Since 2004, the district's graduation rate has gone up twenty points to 65-percent in 2009. This comes as Gadsden experienced an exodus of students, and a $13-million loss in funding over the last three years. When it comes to money, the district is no different than the rest of the capital counties. It's planning to cut another 800-thousand dollars from its budget, and is planning for a loss in federal education stimulus money next year.

"We have 71 teachers who are in the stabilization dollars. That's going to be a real challenge for us right there, being able to deal with that, unless the government or the Legislature comes up with some way to go back to the funding levels that we had a few years back."

In addition to focusing on student learning, the district is also trying to get more parents involved. When it comes to how well students do in school, Gadsden County Commissioner Gene Morgan says parents are paramount to success.

"The success of a community in so many ways depends on healthcare and education. And we have made improvements on our education. We're still working on that; we've got a long way to go."

Superintendent James agrees.

"Our method here in Gadsden (is) if they won't come to us, we'll go to them. So, we try to make no excuses for them not getting that information. So you'll see that RV parked at churches sometimes when they have big programs. It has all types of parent resource information in it. So, I'm really pleased with that part of it. We have made marked improvements in that area. We are reaching out to parents each and every day, in each and every way we can, and the RV has been a wonderful mobile resource center for us."

James says the district's no excuses policy is about ensuring that its students are successful, and the district is working hard to rebuild, rethink and redo the way it educates children.