Pensacola, Florida
Wednesday May 22nd 2019

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McMillan Pre-K Uproar

By Duwayne Escobedo

Escambia County Superintendent of Schools Malcolm Thomas last month got the school board to approve the closure of the successful McMillan Pre-K Center.

He believed Head Start would lose its federal funding. The office of Congressman Matt Gaetz disputes Thomas’ claim, and parents and residents in District 3 are upset that yet another public school is abandoning their neighborhood.

Unlike his previous closures of academically-struggling elementary schools—Spencer-Bibbs, Allie Yniestra and Hallmark—McMillan Pre-K is one of the top performing pre-kindergartens in the district. Some hope Thomas will change his mind, but he rarely has, especially when it involves the African-American community.

Head Start Funding
Community Action Program Committee Inc. has partnered with the Escambia County School District since President Lyndon Johnson rolled out the Head Start program in 1965. Head Start’s mission now, as it was then, is to break the cycle of poverty by providing early learning to preschool children.

Every year without fail for the past 54 years, the Community Action Program, at 1380 N. Palafox Street, receives a notice of award by April from the Congressional Budget Office that tells the agency the exact amount it can count on for the upcoming school year. For the past couple of years, that appropriation has totaled roughly $667,000. That’s enough to fund 185 preschool-aged students in the Escambia County school system.

“We’ve always operated this way,” said Doug Brown, Community Action’s executive director. “There is nothing unusual about where we are.”

But Superintendent Thomas convinced his school board that the school system would lose $500,000 in funding for its Pre-K program. Thomas blamed the shortfall on Community Action.

That’s why the Escambia County School Board voted 4-1 at its Feb. 19 meeting to close the McMillan Pre-Kindergarten Center. Thomas said the move would save 135 slots for Pre-K students in the upcoming 2019-2020 school year.

“We’re trying to protect services for 135 families and students,” Thomas said at the board meeting. “If we do nothing, they will lose those services. This is a way to salvage 135 of those spots.”

Later, Inweekly interviewed Thomas, who said that the Head Start contract renewal with Community Action was uncertain. “We’ve never had this with them before. We don’t want to start (students) in April and then in November tell them, ‘You have to go home.’ We need a Plan B for the moment.”

However, U.S. Rep. Gaetz’s press secretary, Luke Ball, said funding is not in question. Ball expected the Head Start “funding level to increase or, at the very least, stay the same” in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives once it finalizes the budget.

Although “uncertain” of the specific dollar amount earmarked for Escambia County, in FY 2019, Head Start received $10.1 billion—a $250 million increase over the previous year. The House appropriates funding to the Head Start program, not to specific school districts.

Against School Closure
Newly-elected District 3 school board member Dr. Laura Dortch Edler attended a program that the 4-year-olds at McMillan Pre-K performed recently. It brought tears to the eyes of the University of West Florida assistant professor. Parents, relatives and friends filled every seat in the school’s auditorium.

“It was packed with parents,” Edler said. “I felt like, ‘Why?’ It was truly an unbelievable program. It would have been good for the superintendent to have been there to see how engaged the community is in supporting these little children.”

She was the only board member to reject the closing of the roughly 60-year-old McMillan school in her district. Edler said the closure was in the interest of the budget, not the best interest of the children.

“I like to be optimistic,” Edler said. “The community is still in an uproar about it. I’m not convinced it’s over.”

Parents and community leaders have spoken out against shuttering McMillan, which once served as Goulding Elementary School. Rev. Lonnie Wesley III of Greater Little Rock Baptist Church grew up in Shanty Town, which local black residents call it, or Ebonwood, as others have labeled it, and attended the elementary school.

“When I was a boy, I grew up in Shanty Town, and it was one of the strongest and most beloved communities in all of Pensacola,” the pastor said. “My heart goes out to that community. Schools are often the hub of a neighborhood. When it’s subtracted, it impacts the whole community.”

Jerry McIntosh, the president of Movement for Change and longtime civil rights activist, agreed with Wesley.

“There seems to be total disrespect for our community,” McIntosh told Thomas and the school board. “You always make excuses that you can’t find funds…but build million-dollar schools outside of our district. This brings significant psychological despair within our communities. We are going to continue to resist this.”

Walter Wallace, who resides near McMillan, also expressed anger about the closure. He said,
“You can build a neighborhood, or you can destroy a neighborhood. As the school goes, the neighborhood goes.”

Larry Williams, another resident, added, “You take the school out and take out a vital link from that community. We should be making McMillan a success right where it is.”

Building a Community
McMillan is located in a neighborhood with rundown houses; trash piled on the sides of narrow streets that lack sidewalks and surrounded by closed shops. Just above the trees, you can view the new $140 million Escambia County Jail going up.

Escambia County Commission Chairman Lumon May sits on the Community Action board of directors. He has worked hard to bring job training and businesses to District 3. May is looking to expand the Community Redevelopment Agency in the area that has little funding and wants to redevelop a Superfund site that has sat empty for nearly two decades.

May points out that schools can be economic generators. He told Inweekly, “Schools are the lifeline to any neighborhood. Infusion of public dollars is critical to economic growth.”

Despite his efforts, the school board has closed five schools in District 3 over the past five years, six if you include A.A. Dixon. District 3 has the fewest number of public schools with nine, while District 4 and 5 boast 13. Meanwhile, District 1 has 12 and District 2 includes 11.

Thomas argued that McMillan totals 86 children, and students from 21 other schools send their 4-year-olds there instead of nearby public schools that operate Pre-K programs. Four buses haul the children to McMillan. The district enrolls more than 3,750 children in early childhood education across the county.

“Far too many coming into kindergarten are not ready,” Thomas said.

The three-term superintendent also justifies the move because no teachers or staff at McMillan will lose their jobs and be placed in other schools with Pre-K classrooms. And Thomas pointed out that all 86 students will move on to kindergarten.

That doesn’t console Cierra Sanders, whose son and nephew attend McMillan. She planned to send another son to McMillan, which is in her neighborhood, too. She heard about the closure two days before the board meeting Feb. 19.

“I’m so sad,” Sanders said. “I don’t know how or why they planned on closing it.”

Her 4-year-old once had a speech delay. Now with improved speech, she can’t get him to stop talking. “The teachers are wonderful,” Sanders said. “He loves that school. And they love and look after their children.”

Ebrie Griffin held back tears as she talked about the importance of the Pre-K program to her son and the community that she has lived in all her life.

“It’s like a family to my son,” Griffin said. “He wakes up excited to go to that school. It needs to stay open. I know if it is, it will put our more and more children that will have brighter futures.”

Educators in early childhood learning gave the McMillan Pre-K Center high marks, but Thomas disputed that.

“They don’t have the highest scores in the district,” he said. “They work with tough kids.”

State readiness rates from the Florida Office of Early Learning told a different story. Snapshots both in the 2012-2013 and the 2016-2017 school years show McMillan Pre-K Center had readiness rates that ranked in the top 3 in the Escambia County School District.

In 2012-2013, its students’ readiness rates were 92, only behind Jim Allen and Lincoln Park, which both scored 100, and Global Learning Academy, which earned a 94. In the latest school year, 2016-2017, online at the state early learning office, McMillan Pre-K had a 61, tying with West Pensacola for the second highest readiness rate in the district. Only Bratt had a higher rate at 69.

The McMillan principal, Dr. Patrice Moody, politely declined to comment on her school’s closure and told the Inweekly reporter he could try to speak to the teachers off campus.

Lincoln Park first grade teacher Jamila Richardson said McMillan regularly sends her first-rate students.

“The children who come from that program do fairly well,” she said. “They are a great help to those students and give them a head start to be ready for first grade.”

Achieve Escambia Director Kimberly Krupa concurred. Her agency supports students from “cradle to career.” She told Inweekly, “They are making a difference in children’s lives. McMillan is one of the top performers for our school district.”