Focusing on Academics in Franklin County

 NEA’s Public Engagement Project/Family-School-Community Partnerships (PEP/FSCP) is based on this premise: It’s time we take family and community engagement as seriously as we take curriculum, standards, and tests.


By Barbara Moldauer

 

Franklin County, a rural area with a population of about 11,000, harvests 10 percent of the oysters sold in the United States. Home to a vibrant arts community, bustling tourism industry, and miles of beaches and state parks, it is also the only county in Florida with a single school building that houses kindergarten through twelfth grade.

 

With the support of NEA’s Public Engagement Project and a coalition led by the Florida Education Association (FEA), the Franklin County Teachers Association (FCTA), and other stakeholders, in the spring of 2008 the community held a series of conversations about a controversial plan. Seven schools — three elementary schools, two middle schools, and two high schools — were being combined to create a single K-12 school serving three distinct communities: Apalachicola, Carrabelle, and Eastpoint.

 

County officials had concluded that consolidation was the only way for the education system to succeed. Families and students were not so sure. Tensions among the three communities were already running high — they had a long history of competition for county resources and rivalry in sports.

 

“There were three distinct communities with a history of competition, not collaboration. All of a sudden, they were an extended family. That kind of change doesn’t come easily,” said Rik McNeill, executive director of FEA’s Central Panhandle Service Unit.

 

Under the auspices of NEA’s Public Engagement Project, three months before the scheduled opening of the new school, parents, teachers, business, and county leaders gathered for dinner and discussion in the Eastpoint Church of God, symbolically situated smack in the center of the county. Although participants came from diverse backgrounds, their top priority was the same: raising student achievement.

 

The gathering paved the way for a smooth transition to the new building, without hostilities or violence as had been feared. “Everyone from mayors to custodians agrees that the union played a key role in bringing people together during the transition period. We were able to do so because we believed in a common cause — raising student achievement — and put heart as well as mind behind that cause,” said McNeill.

 

When the consolidated school opened for its second year, the “news was all good,” reported the Apalachicola and Carrabelle Times. The district turned in its best performance since 2002 with 63 percent of students meeting high standards in reading, 68 percent meeting high standards in math, and 76 percent meeting high standards in writing in 2009.

Franklin County School made its biggest gains in writing. The share of students meeting high standards rose from 59 percent in 2008 to 71 percent in 2009 among fourth graders, and from 76 percent in 2008 to 85 percent among seventh and eighth graders in 2009.

 

“The writing scores were so good that prior to a meeting, we held a pinning ceremony to recognize 19 faculty members for a job well done,” said Superintendent Nina Marks.

 

Before the consolidation, it was not uncommon for students to skip school to go “oystering” (catch oysters) in Apalachicola Bay. Now, parents and students agree, “There’s more to life than enjoying the bay,” said Cathy Wood, FCTA president.

Community conversations also paved the way for sorely needed gains among educators. Shortly after the gathering in Eastpoint, Franklin County voters passed a referendum that boosted educators’ salaries substantially. The $29,100 annual starting salary for teachers rose by 10 percent in 2008 (to $32,010), by 8 percent in 2009 (to $34,570), and by 6 percent in 2010 (to $36,644) — a total of about $7,500 or 25 percent in three years.

 

NEA’s Public Engagement Project has had a positive effect on the bottom line in nearby Gadsden County as well. Families, students, teachers, and other community members pitched in and helped renovate Shanks Middle School; their sweat equity allowed $100,000 in school district funds to be used for other purposes.

 

NEA’s Public Engagement Project/Family-School-Community Partnerships (PEP/FSCP) is based on this premise: It’s time we take family and community engagement as seriously as we take curriculum, standards, and tests. The project has sponsored more than 125 community conversations in 21 states — catalysts for change driven by local coalitions of families, students, teachers, business people, clergy, and other stakeholders. Together, they identify local causes of achievement gaps, develop and implement action plans, and mobilize to get results. For more information, contact Roberta Hantgan at 202-822-7721 or rhantgan@nea.org.

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