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Dismal reading scores still plague Jefferson County as the district prepares for a public sector takeover

4 cars are parked in a parking lot in front of a one-story schoolhouse.

Just over half of Florida’s third-graders passed the latest reading assessment. But the Jefferson County School District remains at the bottom for reading proficiently in the state for the second year in a row. These scores come as the district’s charter school operator prepares to hand oversight of the district back to local officials at the end of June.

Only 19 percent of students in Jefferson County Schools are reading at proficiency - a 9-point drop from last year. The district was placed under the control of charter school operator Somerset Academy five years ago because of poor academic performance and financial mismanagement. But the Department of Education agreed to allow the school board to regain oversight of the district earlier this year.
Joy Fender was a kindergarten teacher at Jefferson Somerset for four years before leaving at the end of the last school year. Her three kids, including a third-grader, go to school there. She says she’s not surprised the scores are so low.

“They came in and they promised a whole bunch of stuff, you know academic gain and they were going get the grades up where they wanted to," she said. "And the first two years I felt like you know they’re here and they were going to help and we did see a lot of progress. But this last year it was like they gave up.”

Superintendent Eydie Tricquet says 48 students took the recent reading assessment - meaning only about 9 of them achieved a proficient score of 3 and above. She declined to comment on the low test scores.

Fender says her daughter passed the test but most of the other third-graders are headed to summer school. She blames a lack of qualified instructors in the classrooms and the resources needed from the school administration.

“The kids weren’t even getting the adequate education that they were supposed to be getting to begin with because they didn’t have certified teachers in there teaching them,” she said.

A year before Jefferson was privatized in 2016, only 30% of kids could read at a proficient level. In the first year under Somerset’s control, reading scores rose to 41%.

In a statement, Somerset points to third-grade reading proficiency of 45 percent in 2019. It blames the subsequent score drop on the pandemic and lack of broadband internet access for remote learning. Students returned to school in Fall 2020 after being out for about three months. But not all of them returned at the time and many districts like Jefferson, offered a mix of in-person and virtual learning options to families.

Fender agrees internet access was an issue, but also says teachers had to do in-person instruction and virtual learning at the same time, which was very difficult.

“We had teachers that recommended that we have one teacher from each grade level teach virtual and the other teachers in that grade level teach just face-to-face and Somerset refused that,” she said.

Former Polk County School Board member and activist Billy Townsend has pushed for an audit of the outgoing Somerset Jefferson and parent company Academia’s books.

“If I was Jefferson County I would want to know did Academia transfer positions that should have been for Jefferson County from that ESSR money the state spent all those years down to South Florida to cover other holes in other schools,” he said.

Superintendent Tricquet says the district is hiring new teachers and planning programs to improve literacy as it regains control over its school.

“We have hired highly qualified teachers who are reading endorsed in all areas of K-12 so that they will be able to give students instruction or be able to form small groups and help with the reading,” she said.

Fender says she hopes that the Jefferson County school board, Tricquet and incoming Principal Jackie Pons will turn the district around and improve the academic performance. Because of the new statewide testing regime being implemented starting with the next school year, school districts will have two years to improve their performance without a penalty. But her third grader will be transferring to a private school.

Jefferson got $5 million in funding from the legislature to help transition the district to local control. But Governor Ron DeSantis vetoed additional community schools money meant to provide support services like healthcare, food and clothing assistance, and tutoring.

Sarah Mueller is a journalist who has worked for media outlets in several states since 2010. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2010 and worked as a print reporter covering local government and politics.