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Two Years After Charter Conversion, House Ed Committee Examines Jefferson Schools Success

Jefferson Somerset students along with school board member  ___ interact in this undated photo.
Jefferson Somerset Academy
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Jefferson County Schools

Two years after being forced to become the state’s first and only Charter School District, North Florida’s Jefferson County is being touted as a model for improvement. Now Jefferson Somerset Academy is sharing what its learned so far with members of a House Education Committee.

Two years ago the Florida Department of Education gave Jefferson County Schools an ultimatum: shutter the schools, hire an outside operator to run them, or convert the district into a charter school. Jefferson became the state’s 1st charter school district in 2017 after a decade of poor student performance. 

The school district fired nearly all its employees including teachers and gave control over most of its functions to the new school. Jefferson Somerset Academy brought in new teachers  at far higher salaries, and began establishing programs with colleges and universities to bolster opportunities for students. Last year, Jefferson Somerset’s elementary-middle school earned a "C" grade from the state, while the high school earned a "B". In previous years, the district toggled between Ds and Fs. Principal Corey Oliver says his school is focused on showing kids they have choices.

“We have a full gallery in our art building, its 28 paintings. We’ve re-done the band room and put $100,000 into band instruments--they didn’t have a band, really. We’ve invested in an entrepreneurship program that couples with each of these so if you don’t want to go to college, that doesn’t mean you can’t be successful maybe as a musical entrepreneur.” 

There's also a culinary arts program and one focused on robotics. 

More students are now participating in dual-enrollment programs with colleges and the district has also seen an increase in the number of kids proficient in reading and math. Ayanna Bradley is a junior at the school. She says before the transition, many students were apathetic toward attendance. Others had lost hope. But Bradley says it's different now.

“People told me, just because you’re from Monticello, you won’t be anything. I want to come back with my Master's [degree] and shove it in their face to say, ‘I did it. Did you do it? I did it.’ They [teachers, principals] showed us we have people to fall back on. And they believe in us, they care about us. Mr. Oliver, especially.”

More students are now participating in dual-enrollment programs with colleges and the district has also seen an increase in the number of kids proficient in reading and math. Jefferson Somerset has also benefitted from signficant increases in state funding and exemptions from certain rules and requirements. Last year, the parent company, Somerset Academy, was designated as a "School of Hope" -- a distinction recently created by the legislature that allows charter schools with the designation to access millions of dollars in loans and grants. 

Follow @HatterLynn

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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