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Jefferson Schools Work to Improve Reputation

By Lynn Hatter

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-907307.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – We've told you about the Leon County school district's struggle to preserve academic standing while facing a potential $6.5-million deficit next year. While Leon is working to maintain its academic and financial health, a neighbor is trying to get off life support. Lynn Hatter brings us the second story in a four part series on the state of the capital region's public schools.

A year ago, the Jefferson County school district was in a massive budget hole and its newly elected superintendent, Bill Brumfield, had inherited a mess.

"I guess you could look at it like this. You've got a checking account. You write a check at the bank knowing you don't have any money. It bounces, and basically right now, that's what we do."

That was Brumfield last year, when the county was almost a million dollars in the hole and right before the state stepped in to help. A financial oversight committee was formed to help cut the budget and decrease the deficit. Teachers and administrative staff lost jobs; bus routes, schools and departments were consolidated; and some programs were lost, too. The cuts have been both painful and controversial, but they have worked. Jefferson now has about $130-thousand in the bank. But that doesn't mean it's out of the woods yet. Last year, voters passed a land conservation amendment allowing certain property to avoid taxes. In a county like Jefferson, where the majority of it is protected land, Superintendent Brumfield says his district took a financial hit.

"It hurt us. We lost probably $190-thousand on it, because I think, if I'm not mistaken, about 29 to 30-percent of the land in Florida that comes under this is in Jefferson County, in which Ted Turner owns about 40-thousand acres here."

But the big challenge this year is academic. The district has struggled with failing schools and poor FCAT scores. Jefferson's Academic Director Dr. Kelvin Norton is working to boost performance and students are now being taught with teachers who are subject matter experts.

"A third grade student would not have just one teacher all day. That student would rotate to a number of three or four teachers teaching in a specific content area such as math, science, reading and social studies. So those students, (grades) three through five, would be able to experience that type of environment."

At the high school, there's a Technology and Health Science Academy which provides career certification and training to students, and the district wants to eventually add criminal justice to the list. More advanced courses are being added for students to take. The latest FCAT scores show 60-percent of its third graders are reading at grade level and 73-percent are at grade level when it comes to math. But, when adding in the district's charter school, those numbers begin to fall. Failing FCAT scores have the district considering shutting it down.

"This is going to be a political decision. But I've got to do what's best for the children of this community, and I will, and if I have to take the heat, I'll take the heat."

There are 139 students at CARE Academy, Jefferson's only charter. Of the third graders there, 23-percent are reading at grade level and 45-percent are at grade level when it comes to math. Harriett Cuyler is the director. She says the school is only in its second year and should be offered a chance to improve.

"We see the students progressing, and you know, with all the negative publicity and stuff, we know that if we continue to stay focused on the children, then our school grade, our FCAT results, all of that will be up and above board. Our kids will continue to know that they come to school to learn. They deserve to learn, and at Care Charter School of Excellence, they will learn."

Brumfield has said that if the school doesn't achieve a "C" when the school grades are released, he is going to move to shut it down. But that will have to wait. The next set of FCAT scores that were due out last week have been postponed, because the state's vendor is having technical problems.