The Ledger | by Kimberly C. Moore | December 17, 2020
LAKE WALES — Florida’s only citywide charter-school district is undergoing a leadership convulsion of sorts 16 years after converting five of the city’s seven schools to charters and adding two charter middle schools.
It also comes nine years after the state made Lake Wales a “local education agency,” which meant Lake Wales was its own school district — albeit one without elected officials who could be held accountable by voters.
This school year, Jesse Jackson, the charter district’s superintendent, told district officials that he would be leaving, either at the end of the calendar year or the end of the school year. Then, at a heated board meeting in late October, School Board Chairman Danny Gill announced he was resigning. The next month, the board unanimously voted to reinstate him as vice chairman.
“It’s just so uncharacteristic of what goes on,” said district attorney Robin Gibson, an original proponent of having the community take over Lake Wales public schools. He has served as the organization’s attorney since its inception, with the exception of seven months this year, when he had to recuse himself because of a conflict of interest. It was during that time period that this blow-up occurred over the timing of Jackson’s retirement.
Bok Academy North students walk to class in Lake Wales. Ernst Peters
“And I kick myself for that,” Gibson said. “Had I been there, all this turmoil would have never occurred. It’s very, very unusual for us. It’s always been a good, solid organization without any real difficulties. I’m back working to stabilize things.”
Despite the short-lived chaos, Gibson, Jackson and Gill all said things are back on track to find a new superintendent and continue to slowly push their students to do their best.
In the late 1990s, Lake Wales city officials looked at their schools’ grades and were met with a dismal picture: Hillcrest, Janie Howard Wilson and Polk Avenue Elementary Schools were all D’s, while Lake Wales High, McLaughlin Middle, Dale R. Fair Babson Park and Spook Hill Elementary schools all earned C’s. The town had no B or A schools.
Parents were pulling their students out of Lake Wales schools and sending them to Winter Haven, Haines City, Fort Meade or Frostproof to better performing public schools. Those who could afford it shipped their children to private schools.
In November 2002, the Education Committee of the Lake Wales Area Chamber of Commerce commissioned a feasibility study for improvement of the schools. More than 150 people were interviewed, with officials finding that “education had become the community’s Achilles’ Heel and it should accept responsibility for the quality of its schools.” In addition, the study found that “the solution should benefit all students in all schools – no elitist schools.”
They wanted students to have at least reading, writing and math, with a concentration on reading, and that the curriculum offered “should be more practical and provide real world educational choices that are relevant to local families and the local economy.”
Gibson led an effort to convert the seven public schools within the city to conversion charter schools that would receive public school money but be run by community members — rather than a school board in Bartow they felt was ignoring their needs.
In 2003, teachers in five of the schools voted to convert, while teachers at Spook Hill Elementary and McLaughlin Middle voted to remain with Polk County Public Schools. (Another recent vote saw the same results at Spook Hill and McLaughlin.)
The parents at the five favorable schools approved the measure by an overwhelming margin — with at least 70% of the votes at each school. In 2004, the charter school district accepted its first students, and by 2008, a new middle school opened — Bok Academy. With another middle school — Bok North — added last year. In 2011, the state granted the Lake Wales Charter School District “local education agency” status, making it its own school district.
A review of the school grades of Lake Wales Charter schools over a 20-year period shows a staccato of A’s, B’s and C’s — with a peppering of D’s at four of its six schools. Those D’s have been eliminated in recent years. Dale R. Fair Babson Park Elementary, currently an A school, has exchanged A’s and B’s over the years. One school, Bok North, is too new to have a school grade, while Bok Academy, a middle school now known as Bok South, has made all A’s since its inception.
The two Polk County public schools remaining in Lake Wales — Spook Hill Elementary and McLaughlin Middle — were D schools last year. McLaughlin received F’s in 2016 and 2017. Both are turnaround schools and are receiving special help from the state to increase their grades. No schools in Florida tested students for state standards or received grades this year because of the pandemic.
There are a number of factors that can cause students to perform poorly on standardized tests. Stress is certainly one, but others include whether the child comes from a home with few to no resources for things like books and computers, or a home with parents who don’t understand the value of reading to children at an early age.
Every student at Janie Howard Wilson and Polk Avenue elementary schools is listed as “economically disadvantaged.” The same is true at Polk County schools McLaughlin Middle and Spook Hill Elementary.
A group of students at Janie Howard Wilson elementary read books in a classroom/ Photo provided Lakes Wales Char
Historically, minority students have underperformed on standardized tests, commonly known as the achievement gap. Every school in Lake Wales except Bok Academy and Babson Park is “majority minority.” Janie Howard Wilson and Polk Avenue elementary schools are 73% minority, some of the highest minority rates in Polk County.
What the grades don’t show is a district with all A’s or the dramatic results some might have hoped to see in Lake Wales. Instead, grades have merely inched up in 16 years.
“It’s not where we want to be, but it’s a drastic change from where we were,” said Gill, the board vice chairman. “Nothing is going to happen overnight. You’re changing a culture – you can’t just go in and put a Band-Aid on it. Plus we’re learning as we go. That’s a hard thing to analyze what the perfect fix is.”
One issue that’s difficult for a school system to fix, but one that a community can tackle, is early childhood education. Studies have shown that the earlier a child is read to on a consistent basis, the better their grades in school throughout their academic career.
“I do agree with starting earlier,” Gill said, “but I think it’s going to take mentoring and figuring out a way to help the parents help their children become educated. There’s only so much you can do in the hours you have them at school. We’ve got to figure out as educators how to help those parents do that.”
Teachers Jennifer Giles and Nichole Perrett work with young students on math problems during the Family Literacy Academy at Lake Wales at Janie Howard Wilson Elementary. Pierre Ducharme/The Ledger
Carol Burris is executive director of the Network for Public Education Foundation, an organization that tracks charter schools, charter school companies and charter school failures. She has been critical of the 25-year national experiment with allowing private entities run public schools.
“This is the dilemma that you have everywhere when it comes to charter schools,” Burris said in a telephone interview about the Lake Wales district. “A group of schools form, either by converting or, in most cases, someone comes up with an idea, they get funding, then they get additional support by people with money, then they create elite academies that pull high-performing kids from public schools. The public schools are left with more challenging kids.”
Another issue with Lake Wales, she said, is that Lake Wales High School started an International Baccalaureate program, which attracts high-performing students to the school from outside of Lake Wales and inflates the high school’s grade and graduation rate. Lake Wales High has one of the highest graduation rates in the county, with 96% of its students earning a diploma. The two other Polk County high schools with IB programs, Bartow and Haines City, have a 92% and 85% graduation rate, respectively.
Like Gill, Burris said factors in the home are the greatest predictors of success for a student, beginning before they’re even born with prenatal care, then nutrition, medical support and having books in the home.
Creating charter schools, she said, is “not a way to fix education in the United States, that’s a way to throw out a life boat. High-performing kids swim to it.” She added that the more kids you have with challenges, the harder it is to do a good job.
“Charter schools get cream kids — you can see it happening there,” Burris said, referring to charters accepting the best public school students off the top. “I wish that the wealthy folk in Polk County, who are bringing all of these resources to little boutique schools, would instead bring these resources to county schools.”
She said for-profit or big-business charters are not the answer.
Lake Wales High School, one of the three Polk schools with an international Baccalaureate program, is a B school with a 96% graduation rate. Pierre Ducharme/The Ledger
“You’d expect, if these are a panacea, they’d be doing better,” Burris said. “Charter Schools go belly up.”
She said about half of the charter schools that started 25 years ago are gone now.
The Lake Wales charter district is not for-profit and had a budget this year of $36.4 million in revenue and expenditures, with $5 million in reserve funds.
Former Polk County School Board member Billy Townsend is a longtime observer of the Lake Wales district. He was also an investigative reporter and editor, overseeing education, for The Ledger earlier in his career. He has taken deep dives into the Lake Wales district’s data, writing about it at length multiple times for his popular blog.
Townsend, who is also Gibson’s cousin, has long pointed out a key difference between Polk County public schools and Lake Wales charter schools: like all charter schools — but unlike public schools — Lake Wales schools require students to apply for entry.
Although the charter schools are located in Lake Wales, they have no legal connection to a school zone or the area. Lake Wales High School, for instance, does not serve as the zoned high school of Lake Wales in the same way that Frostproof or Fort Meade High do in their communities as regular public schools. So a high school student who moves to Lake Wales will not automatically go to LWHS. Townsend noted that Lake Wales is the only town of its size in Florida without a zoned high school.
By contrast, Polk district schools are zoned, and if a Lake Wales child does not apply to a charter or is not accepted, that child must attend their zoned district school or opt out of in-person school altogether. The district’s zoned high schools for Lake Wales children are in other cities, like Winter Haven, Haines City or Bartow. The zoned Polk County public elementary school in Lake Wales is Spook Hill, while the middle school is McLaughlin.
Townsend said this enrollment procedure has led to sometimes divisive sorting of students by geography, achievement level, behavior, ESE status and socioeconomic profile. Data provided by PCPS backs up that assessment.
Out of the Lake Wales district’s 4,875 students, one-fourth are from out of the area, with another 328 from nearby Babson Park. While 1,261 come from outside of Lake Wales to attend classes, more than 450 Lake Wales students were bused to schools out of the city in 2019.
Students in the IGNITE Academy at Janie Howard Wilson elementary work on a class project as Disney Imagineers creating a theme park ride based on a system of the human body using their iPad minis. Ernst Peters/The Ledger
“No other community imports a substantial number of elitish, out-of-town children into its schools to occupy spots that could be occupied by homegrown children,” Townsend wrote in one of his blogs on the issue.
There have been complaints for years that Lake Wales charter schools pushed out underperforming or misbehaving students from the application-based charter system to the default zoned system of Polk County Public Schools. But PCPS officials said that this year and last year no students were expelled from Lake Wales charter schools.
Lake Wales officials counter that if someone moving to Lake Wales, who didn’t know about the charter school district, went to the PCPS webpage to find out where their child would go to school, the only options offered on the GeoZone map is Spook Hill and McLaughlin for elementary and middle school, and Bartow, Winter Haven and Haines City high schools, depending on where they lived.
None of the Lake Wales charter schools show up as an option on the PCPS map — even though charter schools are considered public schools.
“When we became charter, we disappeared off the district map — it routes you to one of the other district schools,” Gill said. “Our complaint with that is, you’re directing kids from Lake Wales (to) outside of Lake Wales and we want them in Lake Wales. That’s sad because (PCPS) complains about us not taking all the Lake Wales children, yet they do not direct all of the students to us.”
Gill said local Realtors and rental agents try to let their clients know but a lot of people simply go to the PCPS webpage to get their information.
Both Townsend and Lake Wales charter officials have asked PCPS to add the charter schools to its zoned school finder map, even though that would carry no legal weight for enrollment at the charters.
Townsend also pushed for formal, legal zoning of all Lake Wales students to attend Lake Wales schools, starting with Lake Wales High. He even asked the then-director of the state charter schools office, Adam Miller, if this could be done and Miller indicated it could, citing a similar charter arrangement with Jefferson County. The small, rural North Florida county is entirely charter.
But no formal progress was made on the issue at the staff or board level on either side, and Townsend wasn’t re-elected this year. Miller has left the Department of Education to join the Texas-based IDEA for-profit charter school chain, which is expanding into Florida.
Townsend has called for a “co-operative” governance model between the Lake Wales and Polk County school districts and places the blame at the feet of Lake Wales Superintendent Jackson and PCPS Superintendent Jacqueline Byrd.
“If the superintendent of schools of the Polk district schools, if the superintendent of Lake Wales charter schools had wanted to solve this problem, they could have,” Townsend said. “Jesse Jackson and Jackie Byrd could not run away fast enough from the idea of cooperation – and from each other – and the kids of Lake Wales have suffered for it. To my knowledge, they have never sat down in a room and had a conversation about solving the divisions. Bitter, personalized competition on all sides of the Lake Wales/Polk District rift has damaged not just the kids and community of Lake Wales, but big chunks of East Polk. It is far past time to find a collaborative and mutually supportive approach for the next generation.”
Lake Wales residents who recently took part in a survey regarding the school district agreed that Lake Wales students should be attending Lake Wales schools.
“No Lake Wales student should be denied enrollment in a Lake Wales school,” one respondent said in a report being prepared by Gibson that is set to be released next month. Another said, “Lake Wales students should have the highest priority,” while a third said there “should be automatic enrollment” for Lake Wales children.
Meanwhile, attendance at Lake Wales charter schools continues to grow, so much so that the district has added another middle school. Bok North opened two years ago and has been housed in a downtown Baptist Church. But the district bought the town’s original school, which was built in 1919, paying the city $575,000 earlier this year.
The Lake Wales charter district is moving ahead with plans to remodel the building. A site development contract was signed on Oct. 24 at a cost of $1.6 million. Construction is set to begin in January and end in April, allowing for eight portables to be placed on the property.
The next phase will see the addition of 18 to 20 classrooms, along with the construction of a cafeteria building. Design, permitting and documents for the cafeteria are an additional $185,500. Construction plans still need to be approved and a cost estimate obtained for both buildings.
It was the purchase of the Mimi Hardman School Complex building that saw Gibson step down temporarily from his role as the district attorney. As the town’s deputy mayor, he is also the chairman of the town’s community redevelopment agency, which was in charge of selling the property.
While he was away from his role with the district for seven months, things became heated between Jackson and Gill.
Jackson holds a Ph.D. in educational leadership and administration from Florida State University, where he was also superintendent of FSU’s K-12 lab school before arriving in Lake Wales. He was hired in January 2008, a few months after the sudden death of beloved educator Clint Wright, the district’s first superintendent.
Jackson admits that his situation in Lake Wales has not been ideal after his wife decided to return to Tallahassee, leaving him to commute for weekend trips to see his family.
“I’ve been sort of between two places and put hundreds of thousands of miles on my vehicles,” Jackson said in a lengthy phone interview. “I can tell you, the time has just been incredible. Every challenge we’ve had, I’ve enjoyed it. Every obstacle has been a chance to make a difference. The people I’ve worked with have just been wonderful … and that includes the board and staff and volunteers, churches, philanthropists. I have been privileged to be a part of something so wonderful.”
Jackson pointed to the improved school grades, the increased graduation and college acceptance rates, and the addition of Bok North.
He said that four years ago, as they were planning to add Bok North, he asked the board to begin giving him annual contracts because he wasn’t sure how long he would stay. In June, he told Gibson that he would be leaving at the end of the calendar year and they should be prepared to start looking for another superintendent.
In the meantime, Jackson’s received an evaluation that had less-than-stellar marks, particularly when it came to community involvement and communicating with board members and administrators.
Jackson said he has “tenure fatigue” after remaining in a job for 13 years that most people only perform for four or five years. PCPS Superintendent Byrd, who is leaving in June, has been in her position for four years.
“I’m one of those perfectionist kind of people, so anything that’s not 100% perfect, I take that very seriously,” Jackson said.
Lake Wales district officials said one area of contention has been with his lack of participation with the Chamber of Commerce.
Jackson, whose salary is $151,763, said he has attended meetings and gatherings.
But another issue that came up was someone’s use of the n-word. Jackson, who is black, declined to say who it was or when it was said, but he said it had nothing to do with the Lake Wales Chamber of Commerce.
“People have a right to their opinions and feelings about things, and I understand that, so my commitment has always been to our community and our schools,” Jackson said. “Any feelings or thoughts that people might have about me or people like me – persons of colors – that’s their opinion. I don’t have to dwell with those people if they feel that way. This person made a general statement about people of color using those kinds of general terms, but not to me.”
His dispute with Gill arose from the timing of his resignation announcement.
“He was going to resign as of the end of the calendar year, with pay through February and benefits. I was perfectly fine with that, he earned that right,” Gill said. “He never responded to me, which was quite common. I reached out again and said, ‘Now is the time for you to make your announcement so people can recognize you.’”
Gibson said he would intercede with Jackson about finalizing a date. Prior to the October board meeting, Gill sent out an email to other board members saying Jackson’s resignation would be on the agenda.
“He ended up recanting and turning it around and it was an attack on me,” said Gill, who resigned at that meeting. “I was blind-sided, and I was just frustrated.”
He has since been reinstated by the School Board as vice chairman.
And Jackson said that, although he has not submitted a resignation letter, he will be leaving at the end of the school year.
The dust has settled and both men say they respect and wish the other well.
“The people in Lake Wales have invested a lot into making this school system better,” Jackson said. “Change is going to happen, regardless of what we think or feel about it. When I’m gone, I think you’ll see these things continue because we’ve tried to build a system and not a personality.”
The next year is going to be busy for the charter school officials as construction begins on Bok North.
Jackson said they are also trying to determine whether they should create a ninth-grade academy for the high school as a large crop of rising middle schoolers begin their high school careers.
Like every other school district in the world, Lake Wales continues to wrestle with the COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout from faltering grades because of e-learning and a potential decrease in funding.
Officials also say a mentoring program needs to be established for at-risk and disadvantaged students, “particularly males,” according to the report that will be distributed next month.
A superintendent search will start in earnest soon. And all the players involved are hoping for better cooperation between the Lake Wales district and Polk County Public Schools, which is also getting a new superintendent in May.
As they have for 16 years, officials, administrators and teachers will work to help students succeed. In the forthcoming report set to be distributed in the next month in Lake Wales, the top priority listed by respondents was classroom support.
“The best schools have the best people, not the best rules or procedures,” the report reads. “Achievement is always – without exception – because of outstanding leadership and the ability to attract and retain the best people. … The classroom is where the magic happens.”