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Wakulla Schools: The Capital Region's Best Kept Secret

By Lynn Hatter

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-907305.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – We've been telling you about the state of schools in Florida's capital area. Down Highway 319 south in Wakulla County, Lynn Hatter reports even in the midst of budget challenges, the district continues to outperform its neighbors.

The district's building used to be a school, something that looks like it's straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. The wide, sandstone-colored structure sits on a manicured lawn against a blue sky. An American flag billows softly in the wind on a flagpole outside the door. The building is located off a side highway.

Much of Wakulla is a bedroom community. It's about a 30-minute commute to Tallahassee, but the two school districts are worlds apart. Wakulla is much smaller, but it deals with many of the same issues. Superintendent David Miller says they've managed well.

"We've cut where we could. We've eliminated non-instructional positions. We've eliminated instructional positions, and so we're trying to balance our budget. We're fairly sound fiscally. We had a pretty healthy reserve, and we have been able to utilize some of those resources to get us by."

Wakulla has seven schools: four elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school. In academics, it ranks among the best districts in the state. The county has the second highest population of National Board Certified teachers. In years past, they've been number one, besting the much larger Broward County. Those teachers, says Miller, are part of Wakulla's success.

"We don't as much recruit them as we grow our own. We support that process. Many of our teachers that are National Board, a lot of them here have taught for several years. They've gone through that process, and they've earned that status. I'd say a majority, I'd say over 75-percent have earned that status while working in here."

Like other Florida school districts, Wakulla has had to make cuts. This year, it stands to lose fifteen positions out of a workforce of about 650 people. What concerns Miller is the year 2012, when the federal stimulus money that has kept school budgets afloat disappears.

"If we were to lose the stimulus dollars that we're going to build our budget around this year, those fifteen positions or so that I've talked about laying off this year would creep up to around fifty. That would be significant."

The district doesn't have the class size problems that Leon faces, nor does it struggle with test scores, unlike Jefferson. But that doesn't mean it is without its own share of concerns. One of them is academic. During this year's legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill that adds higher level math and sciences like physics to the list of classes students have to take to graduate. Wakulla's Assistant Superintendent Jimmie Dugger says that looks good on paper.

"But we're missing the boat by not having some other path for them to go so they can graduate with a regular diploma, whether it be a career diploma versus an academic diploma. We need something that kids just don't drop out of school or go get a GED."

Wakulla, like many other school districts, is worried that lawmakers have raised standards without really giving students enough time to adjust to them. The concern is that those standards could hurt the county's graduation rate, which is above 80-percent. That is much better than the state as a whole. Education Week Magazine is reporting a four-year high school graduation rate of 62.1-percent. According to the state, the rate is about fifteen-points higher.