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Wednesday October 1st 2014

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The Hammer or Redemption?

A.A. Dixon’s Bid at a Second Chance
By Jeremy Morrison

Chatter fills the school cafeteria on a Friday morning. Students sit in their uniforms, awaiting the final day of school before a weekend’s respite.

“I love Dora!” a little girl excitedly exclaims, expressing affection for a certain popular cartoon character adorning her backpack.

Students fill the cavernous hall with their early morning buzzing. Laughing. Studying. Rummaging through papers and finishing up breakfast.

The cafeteria at A.A. Dixon Charter School of Excellence is classic, mid-century Americana. A checkerboard tile floor fades beneath high ceilings as sunlight streams in from the expansive windows. On the far end, varnished floorboards of a stage peek out from behind a cloaking curtain. To the side is a kitchen and mural of the food pyramid.

The room is ideal for eating, or a school play, or a PTA meeting or maybe a dance. It was created to collect the happy howls of elementary academia, and the students are howling plenty on this Friday morning.

Principal Kathy Colbert and her vice principal Chresal Lambert take to the cafeteria PA system to make morning announcements. The duo may be having trouble getting into a Friday-kind-of-mood. They’ve got more than Saturday morning cartoons on their minds.

Before the end of September they’ll need to convince the Escambia County School Board not to yank A.A. Dixon’s charter. It may be a tough sell: the charter is about $100,000 in the hole and has been labeled a failing school by the state.

Last month, the school board demanded that the Dixon team present them with a game plan for steering the charter onto more solid ground. The board voted 4-1 to dissolve the charter if it wasn’t satisfied with the response. Board member Jeff Bergosh was the lone dissenting vote only because his trigger finger was already itching.

“I’d like to terminate your charter tonight,” Bergosh told Colbert at the August meeting.
But the principal remains confident she can put enough muscle into the yoke of A.A. Dixon to avoid a nosedive. She talks about fostering a sense of community and reaching students on an individual level, about progress that eludes the radar of state testing. She believes in these kids, the kids living their Friday-morning, chatterbox lives unaware of the district’s ultimatum.

“We don’t feel we’re an F,” Colbert says.

A Rough Start
Following a long run as an elementary school and its more recent stint as an adult education facility, A.A. Dixon was shuttered by the Escambia County School District. Last year, it reopened as a charter.

No one was wowed by the new school. It was a rough first year. Bill Slayton, vice president of the school board, is a bit more blunt.

“Last year was a catastrophe,” Slayton said. “Last year we lost the principal—and I’m not even sure he had an education background.”

By the end of the school year, Dixon was heavily in debt. The school also seemed to be in an academic wilderness; students’ performances on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test was dismal, earning the school an “F” grade.

But Vice Principal Lambert, who was already on board last year, argues that the hard, cold assessment of the state doesn’t paint an accurate portrait.

A.A. Dixon certainly scored a failing grade on standardized tests. They also don’t tell the whole story.

“Specific students, yes, made great gains,” Lambert explained.

Getting 10 percent of the answers on a test correct is considerably different than getting 50 percent of the answers correct. Both, however, amount to the same “F” grade.
Lambert points to the fact that students at Dixon improved their scores, just not enough to drag the school out of the dreaded “F” territory. Principal Colbert also appreciates Dixon’s students’ improvements, and points to the fact that the school started the race a few paces behind the pack.

“They were coming to us with a disadvantage, actually,” Colbert said of Dixon’s students, “because they were not on target.”

A.A. Dixon is located in the kind of economically disadvantaged landscape normally associated with higher crime rates and lower test scores. Many of the students attending the school hailed from the ranks of other schools’ poorer performers. Some were several grade levels behind where they should have been.

“The students that came over are a product of the school system,” said LuTimothy May, a local minister and educator who recently took the helm of the board overseeing A.A. Dixon.

This charter was started, in part, to accommodate these struggling students. To reach those that the traditional school system was failing to reach. This comes with inherent challenges.

“I understand it’s hard,” conceded Escambia County School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas. “It’s very hard.”

But the apparent disadvantage has not translated into mercy from the school board. In the eyes of charter officials, the district body remains as clinically cold as the Scantron machine grading these students’ standardized tests.

“I realize that they teach a challenging population,” said Patty Hightower, District 4 board member. “While you take that into account, what is important is that they hold their students to a higher standard. You have to set the standard for them as you would for any child.”

In the harshest of terms, the board views Dixon as poorly managed, heavily indebted and academically not up to snuff. Holding the school up in comparison to the nearby Global Learning Academy, which is touted as a state-of-the-art charter school, Bergosh warned that such poor performing schools should watch out.

“You’ve got a school board that’ll drop the hammer on’em,” the District 1 representative said. “I think that right now the hammer is above the head of A.A. Dixon.”

Jesus Just Left Chicago?
The weather in Chicago is already cooling off. It’s standard practice to carry a jacket in September.

After saying goodbye to Illinois, Kathy Colbert ditched a lot of her winter clothes and headed south for a Florida summer. A recent Pensacola chilly snap that had early morning temperatures dipping into the frigid mid-60s caught her off guard.

For a brief moment on a recent morning she discussed the weather—“this is Florida?!”—and humored the social niceties of small talk. But Colbert was more interested in talking about the challenges that lie ahead for her new charge.

“What we have to do is look at the individual needs of the students,” the newly installed principal explained in the school office.

Colbert said she was no stranger to less than optimal schools. The principal, who came to the area after leaving the top post at Hoover Elementary School in Calumet, Ill., said she was up to the challenge at Dixon.

“I’ve been very comfortable in going to schools and turning them around,” Colbert said.

Those rooting for the charter’s success are certainly putting a lot of stock in the new principal. After the school’s first principal, Guy Cooper, left last year—or, as Bergosh puts it, “pulled the ripcord and jumped ship”—even the school board seems encouraged by the choice of Colbert to head up the rehabilitation efforts.

“I think the principal is just outstanding,” Bergosh said.

Fellow board member Slayton agreed. While stressing that Colbert has been “put behind the curve”, he wanted to believe it was possible for the administrator to turn the school around. He hopes she’s granted the authority needed to do so.

“If people come in and try to tell her what to do, that’s going to be trouble,” Slayton said. So far, everyone seems to be listening to Colbert. And after a quick lesson on local weather, the Illinois transplant continued learning about her new home—like how much of a focus the local community places on primary education.

“They want to see children succeed,” Colbert said, sounding encouraged.

The Man on a Mission Finds Another Mission
Another new player on A.A. Dixon’s roster is LuTimothy May. The pastor of Pensacola’s Friendship Missionary Baptist Church recently accepted the chairman position on the charter school’s board of directors.

May also teaches a religion class at the University of West Florida. Ducking into his campus office on a recent Thursday morning, he explained how his new position overseeing the charter probably hasn’t won him any points with his wife.

“I wasn’t supposed to be on any more boards,” May laughs.

The minister, who is also UWF’s assistant of student support services and a chaplain with the Escambia County Sheriff’s Department, deemed the situation at Dixon worthy enough to devote his time to. He grew up nearby. His mother attended school there as a child.

“I got involved because they needed some intervention, some help, some direction,” May explained.

A major complaint of the school board last year was that Dixon’s board was full of out-of-town, absentee members. They felt the board didn’t give the charter the attention it deserved.

“It’s kind of hard to be passionate about what’s going on when you’re 500 miles away,” said Superintendent Thomas.

Another problem the board had with the school was the lack of communication flowing from the charter. Bergosh seemed particularly miffed by the school’s hiring of an out-of-state consulting firm against the express wishes of the district.

“That’s not how you start out a good relationship,” Bergosh said.

Upon taking over the reins on Dixon’s board, May approached the Superintendent to discuss how the two entities might patch up their relationship. Communication topped the list.

“I asked, ‘What is the problem?’” May recalled. “He said, ‘Lack of communication.’ I said, ‘That’s a problem you won’t have.’”

The team at A.A. Dixon is making efforts to establish a better line of communication with the school board. May said it’s one of the most obvious and simplest improvements the charter can make.

“That’s the basis for most problems in any relationship—communication,” May said. The chairman of the board said he had committed himself to head the group for a limited time, probably a year.

“I’m really there to weather the storm,” said May.

The pastor feels he’s already making a difference. And if he succeeds in steering A.A. Dixon out of the dark and a child is better off for it, then it makes it all worth it.

“The question becomes, will you stick your neck out?” May said. “What more worthy cause?”

Conveniently Serving a Purpose
Waiting for the school day to begin, Jennifer Jackson sits with her daughter in A.A. Dixon’s cafeteria. As a student in the early 1980s, she attended classes here herself.

“I love this school,” Jackson smiles. “This is my school.”

The woman’s daughter is 7 years old. She’s supposed to be in second grade but is a year behind. Jackson enrolled her here in hopes of bettering her chances of success.

“She’s learning better,” Jackson reports. “The teachers, they’re understanding, they try to help with my daughter the best they could.”

Many of the students attending A.A. Dixon were not doing well at their previous schools. The charter’s intent is to cater to these students.

“I think that this school’s purpose is to really help students that have fallen through the cracks,” explained Nichole West, who teaches remedial math and reading at Dixon. “They’re given a chance.”

Joanna Coleman has a son in first grade at the charter. She said she was attracted to the smaller classroom sizes, as well as the structure and conformity of uniforms.

“I was looking for a school that was more hands-on,” Coleman said. “It was a better opportunity for him to grow as a child.”

Kelly Brown has two children enrolled at Dixon. She said she was just looking for a “change of venue” from the traditional school system. Her kids are reportedly loving it.

“She just told me today she’s going to be on the student council,” Brown says of her fourth-grade daughter. “She’s really excited about that.”

Admittedly, other parents have confronted her about the family’s decision to send their children to Dixon. Why voluntarily attend a failing school?

“I really feel that that grade was really unfair,” Brown said. “I just tell them, ‘I know what accomplishments my children have made going to A.A. Dixon.’”

May said many of the school’s students are also living in an environment full of stress. In addition to educational challenges, kids may also be facing numerous other challenges: economic hardships, familial strife or even car problems.

Colbert agreed.

“A lot of the students are at-risk,” the new principal said. “We have to make sure at school we are providing a very warm and fuzzy environment.”

May described it as taking a more “holistic view”. He said the individual needs of each child will be taken into consideration throughout their educational journey.

“The regular school system is not able to be as flexible,” May said.

The minister also said the school helps foster a sense of community in the area. His mother and other residents who attended school there over the years enjoy having a vibrant, youthful facility in the area again.

“It’s right in the heart of neighborhoods,” May said, talking about nearby residents enjoying the institution’s revival. “They can remember what they felt when they walked those halls. They felt love. They felt passion.”

Colbert said she envisions the school as a “nucleus in the community”. She said there was already plenty of history on which to base such a relationship.

“It’s almost like a pillar in the community,” Colbert said. “Everyone knows A.A. Dixon.”

Bergosh has a dramatically different take on the charter. He doesn’t feel the school will be able to offer students the education they require.

“I tell’em, look, what you want to do is walk the halls,” Bergosh said, questioning why parents of prospective students would choose to send their children to A.A. Dixon over another charter such as Global Learning Academy.

The school board member considers himself a champion of charter schools. He went on to say that Dixon was not created with the purest of intentions. He said it felt like “something the adults put together to benefit themselves”.

“In many cases,” Bergosh explained, “I’ll just be quite blunt with you—parents do what’s convenient for the parent.”

The Harsh and the Mellow
The Escambia County School Board gave A.A. Dixon until Sept. 2, the board’s next regularly scheduled meeting, to get a plan together. The school needs to address both academic concerns and financial shortfalls.

Bergosh said the continuation of the school’s charter until that meeting should be viewed as “an olive branch”. When it comes time for the school to plead its case, the board member said it’d take a “miracle” to satisfy him.

Bergosh pointed out that Dixon’s enrollment numbers, which play out in harsh reality via funding, have been dropping since the start of the school year. Two weeks into September the school reported the number at 145. While Colbert puts the magic number at 190, Bergosh said he thinks they need 230 students to make things work.

“They’re definitely in a vice grip right now,” Bergosh said.

Vice Principal Lambert attributed this year’s decline in student numbers to “negative press”. Several parents pulled their children out of the school following media reports that the school board issued its request for a plan aimed at redemption. He’s confident enrollment will increase once it’s realized the charter will be sticking around, and administrators aren’t entertaining the option of failure.

“That particular question—We don’t even address,” Lambert said, growing riled in the school’s office. “That’s not even a thought, we don’t even entertain that direction. We’re going to be here, we’re going to serve the needs of these children.”

Parents who currently have their children enrolled in the school certainly hope so.

“Closing it would be a big mistake if it ever came to that,” said Brown.

Still waiting back in the cafeteria with her daughter, Jackson said she’s able to walk her 7 year old to class. If the school closed, something as basic as transportation becomes a big deal.

“If this school wasn’t here,” Jackson said, “I wouldn’t know what to do.”

May and Colbert are hoping for the best. They like to think they’re building a relationship with the school board.

“We’re all just basically one village,” Colbert said

May even hopes the district will take more of an interest in schools such as A.A. Dixon: “They should be at the door. What else can we do to make you more successful?”

The general vibe emanating from the district is a little less warm and fuzzy.

“I don’t think A.A. Dixon is best for the kids,” he said. “And I don’t think they’re gonna make it.”

Bergosh did say he is the “most conservative” member on the school board, and that several other members are “a lot more mellow”. He predicted a good day for Dixon if its team “put together something halfway decent”.

“In this case they might be alright,” Bergosh said.

Fellow board member Slayton seemed to want to believe in the new voices behind Dixon.

“I think they have a chance,” he said.

Hightower, as well, is pulling for the charter.

“I think that, you know, they know what they’ve got to do,” the board member said, adding that she felt the school could rise to the occasion. “I hope so. I know that they want to do what’s right.”

May has absolutely no doubts. He sees too much potential.

“You go to that cafeteria any day of the week, you walk those halls, you’ll see—you’ll see,” May assured us. “If you walk away without seeing a sense of worth, I don’t know what kind of blood you have inside of you.”