Pensacola, Florida
Sunday November 23rd 2014

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Miracle, With Strings

They weren’t praying. But it looked kind of like they were. On any account, prayers had been answered.

Reverend Lutimothy May stood huddled in the hallway with his A.A. Dixon compadres. Having just ducked out of the school board meeting, the group was buzzing.

The word “miracle” tumbled from the huddle at least twice.

Somehow May had convinced Escambia County School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas to reverse his recommendation to close the A.A. Dixon Charter School of Excellence.

“We just worked out an agreement,” May said breathlessly after breaking from the huddle. “Closing was not the best option. We had a choice.”

Superintendent Thomas had been plainer way of putting it just prior to Tuesday’s board meeting.

“This school will have an opportunity to see if they can make it through the year,” Thomas said, explaining that if the charter failed to dig itself out of a financial hole or if it received failing grades on standardized tests again, the school would voluntarily shut down.

Most of the standing-room-only crowd gathered for the Escambia County School Board meeting was not yet aware the Superintendent had spared Dixon. There was a thick bold line through the item on the agenda, with the word ‘DELETED’ to the side. Questions were being asked.

When May took to the lectern, he let the the crowd know they could finally take a breath. They’re kids would be continuing in the same school for at least a year. The teachers would have jobs for at least a year.

“I think he deserves a hand,” May said, “for pulling that off the agenda.”

The audience gave the Superintendent and board a round of applause. Some also took the opportunity to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting.

“I was there last year. I’ve been there since the beginning,” said fourth-grade teacher Rebecca Cook, as she explained to the board how the school catered to students falling behind at traditional schools. “I’ve seen them learn, I’ve seen them grow. I’ve seen them change.”

Eula Hines, a mother of three students at Dixon, said she lived near the school. In addition to its academic offerings, she told the board it benefited the area.
“If my kids miss the bus we can walk,” Hines said. “A.A. Dixon is what the neighborhood needs.”

Hines also said one of her children was far behind his grade level. Expectations weren’t high.

“They told him he wasn’t gonna pass F-CAT,” she said. “He passed it cause his teacher took the time to teach him to read.”

Stefon Andrews, who sits on Dixon’s board, said he believes the charter is providing a source of positive influence in the community. He stressed the importance of the charter’s focus on encouraging parents to be positive role models, and connecting students with mentors in the community.

“This morning I saw something I haven’t seen in a long time,” Andrews said, “a young, black male walking his kids to school.”

Resting comfortable in the knowledge that the Superintendent had been swayed, Dixon supporters were able to safely wax poetic about their love for the school. It turned a little gooey.

But there are the aforementioned stipulations — the money and the grades. Those are big deals. The school ended last year $100,000 in debt and labeled a failing school by the state. It’s an uphill miracle.

“This isn’t easy,” Thomas said before the meeting. “Everybody thinks they can run a school. It’s a lot of work.”

The Superintendent also said that transportation issues — that the charter stick with the county’s bus provider — and the dropping of a management company the school has employed are key sticking points. And the board wasn’t as easy to convince as all the smiles and hugs might have you think.

In particular, District I board member Jeff Bergosh was a tough sell. He said he wasn’t satisfied with the school’s plan to date for getting back on solid footing, said he thought Dixon should submit a “corrective, corrective action plan.”

“I’ll support it,” Bergosh finally said to the Superintendent. “It’s because I trust you. But I have concerns.”

Bergosh also complained about reports in the media that the school board would profit if Dixon closed.

“I’ve confirmed that this is 100 percent not true,” he said, later providing staff that explained that while Title I money — reportedly $62,000, designated for low-income children — would follow the students wherever they enrolled; the $100,000 grant from the state is specifically for charters and the District could not hope to see any of that.

The Board eventually unanimously approved Thomas’ recommendation that Dixon not receive a 90-day closure notice. The charter gets a year to make it right.

“They’ve got a shot,” Superintendent Thomas said. “It’s gonna take discipline.”

A miracle with strings attached. Better start praying for the FCAT.