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Jefferson Schools Get Ultimatum: Close, Hire A Charter or Outside Operator

State education officials are fed up with the Jefferson County School districts and they’re giving the district an ultimatum: close the elementary school, hire a charter company or turn it over to an outside operator to run.

“We need to ensure we are the voice for the voiceless. We serve 2.8 million students in Florida. We have some voiceless in the state. And today we’re sharing information on 700 of those who are in Jefferson County," says K-12 system chancellor Herschel Lyons. He delivered a bleak view of Jefferson County Schools Tuesday.

"Seventy-two percent of students in Jefferson elementary school are below satisfactory in ELA [English-Language Arts] and what’s even more disturbing—over half aren’t making gains in ELA or math. Over half," he says.

There are only 700 students in the district. It recently got a handle on its financial problems with help from a state financial oversight board.

Board member Tom Grady invoked the civil rights movement when describing the situation saying, "I’m reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King and his ‘fierce urgency of now’. We have a school that since 2003 has failed an entire generation of kids.”

State education commissioner Pam Stewart says she’s lost faith in the district’s ability to turn around its schools on its own. In addition to poor English and math scores, and high failure rates, teachers have high turnover and absenteeism. The state board now wants Jefferson to consider some of the tougher turnaround options the state has.  Stewart’s frustration was clear Tuesday as she handed down the ultimatum to new superintendent Marianne Arbulu.

“Closure. External Operator. Or a charter company to come in and take over the school," Stewart says laying out the options. "And I think when we do one of these three things, our students in Jefferson County will be the beneficiaries, and that’s the ultimate goal and what we’re charged with doing.” 

The ultimatum would apply to Jefferson’s elementary school.

Arbulu says she’s open to state recommendations, yet she also rejected strong suggestions by a state finance board to close the  elementary school. Between state, federal and local funds, Jefferson Schools receive about $12,000 a student, the state average is $8,000. Despite being the second-highest reciepient of per-student funding, Jefferson is the worst performing in Florida.  

This is the third time Jefferson has had its school turnaround plans rejected. Those turnaround plans are meant to help schools get better, but they haven’t worked in Jefferson. And the state board has few other options to help. It’s got members frustrated and calling on the state to make changes to law. But unless that happens Jefferson schools could be stuck in a failure cycle for a while to come.


Original Story: The Jefferson County School District has three choices for its elementary school: close, hire a charter school company, or turn to an outside operator. State education officials are frustrated with what they see as a lack of effort or progress in the district. State education commissioner Pam Stewart says Jefferson administrators have put adult interests over those of children:

“And I think when we do one of those three things, our students in Jefferson County will be one of the beneficiaries. And that is our ultimate goal and what we’re charged with doing.”

This is the third time the state board of education has rejected a turnaround plan from the failing school district.  More than half of Jefferson Middle-High School students have been held back twice—the highest percentage in the state.

*Check back later on for updates.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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