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Thursday April 17th 2014

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Save School, Have Pool Party


Students sat in their red shirts. They weren’t quite sure what they were waiting for.

“I don’t think they really, really get it,” said the Rev. LuTimothy May.

Outside in the A.A. Dixon Charter School of Excellence parking lot, hotelier Julian MacQueen stood waiting with a crew of employees. This is their new project.

“This is more than just money,” he’d explain later. “This is a commitment of time and energy.”

MacQueen — owner of Innisfree Hotels Inc. — and his employees have decided to “adopt” Dixon charter school. The school recently dodged closure and has been given ultimatums by the Escambia County School District; MacQueen’s wife, Kim, sits on the charter’s board of directors.

“You look spiffy,” said Kim MacQueen, as she greeted May in the school hallway.

The Reverend is sporting a pretty smart suit. It’s a big day. This could be the beginning of a big turnaround for the charter. Things are going better already.

“You should see the library,” May said, jazzed on the school’s growing collection of books.

A.A. Dixon was labeled a failing school by the state last year. It’s also heavily in debt. The school district has given it a year to pull its finances together and somehow get students — some of which entered the school grade levels behind — to pass the FCAT. Superintendent Malcolm Thomas spared the school after initially threatening a 90-day closure notice.

“When the crisis became clear this summer,” Kim MacQueen explained, “my husband and I brainstormed.”

After Principal Kathy Colbert called the assembly in the cafeteria to order, the group from Innisfree filed in. May asked the students to give them as loud a welcome as possible.

“I want you to show me that you love them!” he shouted.

A round of introductions was made. Julian MacQueen said something about how he “couldn’t think of a more worthy organization, a more worthy cause.” But the kids were much more interested in what was under a covered table off to the side.

“We always start with fun and then we get to business,” MacQueen said, before introducing a trio of pirates and huge beach balls into to the assembly.

After the balls and pirates quite down, he makes the students an offer. If they can bring their grades up to a C on the FCAT, there’s a pool party out at the Innisfree waiting for them.

“You’re gonna have the biggest swimming pool party ever held!” MacQueen promised. “We’re gonna have hotdogs and hamburgers and pirates and lots of fun!”

The table off to the side was then unveiled to reveal knick knacks — water bottles, a sand bucket — for the kids.

“This is for trying, this is for all the hard work you’re about to do,” MacQueen told the students.

May then reminded the students that they were being given the opportunity to prove they could accomplish what MacQueen conceded is a “tall order.” Can they pass state standardized tests? Can they score a C and get a pool party?

“Remember, this is a challenge and a charge,” May told them. “Can you do your very best everyday?”

After MacQueen treated the kids to a bit of pirate swordplay — which Colbert explained to them was the “sport of fencing” and was done “very safely” — the hotelier took a moment aside to explain why his company has chosen to wade into the middle of such a struggling story.

“Most companies measure their success by the bottom line,” he said. “It’s not just about the money.”

MacQueen said he “watched on the sideline” for a year as his wife dealt with the charter. After May — who he cited as a “big reason” for his involvement — began heading Dixon’s board, he felt the time was right to try and help.

“It’s measurable,” he said of the project. “The scale is very, uh, I think appropriate for the size company we are.”

Currently, the group from Innisfree is conducting assessments of the school. From there, they will determine how best to help the charter; it will most likely take the form of fundraising activities and volunteering.

The hotel owner said he was trusting in his wife’s take on the school’s chances.

“She thinks they can,” MacQueen said, adding that he was also inspired by the community’s support for the school, including teachers‘ willingness to take pay cuts — “you can’t pay for that kind of commitment, that comes from the heart.”