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District Dialogue

Lake Wales Charter Schools caters to students with needs

Florida citrus-belt district reaches out to migrant families, ELLs and the economically disadvantaged
Superintendent Jesse L. Jackson has made communicating with ESL parents a priority at Lake Wales Charter Schools in Florida.
Superintendent Jesse L. Jackson has made communicating with ESL parents a priority at Lake Wales Charter Schools in Florida.

Lake Wales Charter Schools, an entire K12 charter district in central Florida, is the only charter local educational agency (LEA) in the state. As an LEA, the Lake Wales system functions as its own public school district, retaining administrative and financial control.

The Lake Wales Charter Schools district faces several challenges, including educating a large migrant population and high poverty rates. Serving over 4,000 students, Superintendent Jesse L. Jackson and his administration have been innovative in fostering an internal culture of collaboration and communication to engage their ESL students and families.

DA: How did Lakes Wales Charter Schools become an LEA?

Jesse Jackson: Our charter system developed when parents and faculty banded together to convert the majority of failing schools in our local Polk County public school district into charters. In a town of seven schools, five were converted to charters over the years.

Polk County was the district in charge of the Lake Wales schools before they converted, receiving federal funds that were distributed to the charters. In addition, our charter system was paying the district around $1 million annually in administrative fees. We believed that if we are servicing the students, then we should get the federal dollars directly and pay much less in fees.

When I came on board as superintendent in 2008, my first task was to encourage legislation in Florida to give us local control as a recognized LEA district. Since we do not depend on the district for anything except student data information for reporting, we now pay substantially less to the district system following our approval as an LEA.

Has Lake Wales’ distinction as an LEA changed the services it offers?

The distinction enabled us to receive all federal entitlement funds directly, rather than through disbursements controlled by our local district. As an LEA with Title I designations, we qualified for several federal programs, including grants to provide resources and funding for economically disadvantaged children, migrant and homeless education programs, professional development, English-language learning and more.

In switching from public schools to a charter system, Lake Wales was not looking to serve a select student population but rather pursued the option to retain more financial and administrative control. As an LEA, private dollars can also be used more efficiently to help programs. One of the challenges as an LEA is the debt and responsibility that comes with purchasing and maintaining facilities rather than utilizing local district money. We found our community to be highly supportive.

Charter principals are like CEOs of their schools, managing much of their budgets, utility and maintenance costs. By doing so, we create leaders who really understand curriculum, budgets and evaluation with much more individual accountability. Being an LEA has facilitated them to pursue different curricula with less red tape than they would have to contend with in a district. Responsibilities are more fluid, and teamwork and information sharing are highly encouraged at central office and in the schools.

When the town was thinking of becoming a charter district, Lake Wales backed serving all students regardless of their families’ status or the children’s disability levels. If students were part of the attendance zone, then they attended the local charter school. The only exception is our middle school, which has an application process similar to other charters, as there is already a public middle school. That being said, we are asking the public one—which hasn’t done well since the charter school conversion—to convert to a charter. If the district declines, the LEA may build another middle school.

Weekly school leadership meetings are held to discuss budgets, food service and personnel. The frequency alone is a paradigm shift for decision-makers, and, provides a learning opportunity and immediate help for educators starting out.

We have also found that it is far more efficient to meet weekly so we are not reinventing the wheel by sharing learned information or data gathering for those completing subsequent grants or programs. Teamwork is reflected in the feedback we get from the state about our reporting; they are impressed with how organized, early and complete our reports are.

What engages your ESL families?

Building a culture of collaboration, engagement and communication internally with teachers and administration supports our work externally with ESL families. It fosters a feeling of “we can do this” rather than “it can’t be done.”

In our location in the “citrus belt,” we see many migrant workers and their families. We try to work as a system to find out how best to pool our resources to help this population. In our series of ESL family nights, we work to find solutions by involving people, such as immigration attorneys, who can address families’ issues.

We use local bus transportation to bring those in need to the meetings. To better prepare ESL students, we offer a kindergarten support program that separates children into different levels according to their need for education preparation. In addition, our migrant coordinators can help with family conferences and other situations so language is not an isolating barrier for a solution. The charter system even has a summer academic support camp for Spanish-speaking students. No teaching can really happen until you deal practically with all of these issues.

How has your counseling background inspired the way you lead your district?

In my initial counseling work with adult and then juvenile ex-offenders, the element of hopelessness—even with juvenile offenders—led me to return to school to become a teacher to reach the kids earlier. In public schools, even students with difficult issues usually do not display that hopelessness. In my educational career path from teacher to principal to superintendent, my goal was and is to inspire hope within students and colleagues.

With over 75 percent of our kids in the free or reduced lunch programs, we know that life issues may be interfering with their learning. I am as concerned about helping kids as much as I am about helping them to learn.

Ariana Rawls Fine is newsletter editor.