Pensacola, Florida
Friday August 29th 2014

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Outtakes 3/1/12

BLACK & WHITE DECISIONS When Superintendent Malcolm Thomas announced his new capital improvement plan, there were cheers in East Pensacola Heights. Their little neighborhood school, A.K. Suter Elementary, was on the list to be replaced with a new $21-million, state-of-the art facility—the most the Escambia County Public School District had ever spent on an elementary school.

Since 1921, Suter has been a fixture of the neighborhood that runs along East Cervantes. The school has consistently earned “A” grades from the Florida Department of Education. Superintendent Thomas’ announcement was particularly satisfying because the school was set for closure five years ago.

Suter had for most of the past decade the smallest enrollment of any elementary school south of Interstate 10. A decade ago its enrollment was only 265 kids, which was significantly less than other Pensacola schools like Cordova Park (526), Spencer Bibbs (437), Hallmark (301) and Allie Yniestra (328).

So how did A.K. Suter Elementary go from nearly closing its doors to increasing its enrollment by 100 students and getting Thomas to spend over $52,770 per student on a new facility? It took three things: 1) Supportive parents that mobilized against the closure; 2) A school board member, Patty Hightower, and superintendent who badly wanted to get reelected; and 3) black students.

The school district and state allow students to transfer out of their attendance zones. While Suter grew to 367 students, Bibbs shrank to 370 kids, Hallmark to 232 and Yniestra to 273. All three schools were predominantly black, had nearly all their students on free lunches and struggled to keep their school grades above a “D.”

Rather than spending money to improve the inner-city schools, the district took them off life support and let them die a slow death, and, in the case of Bibbs, let the teachers and parents believe there was still hope they might survive.

Hallmark and Yniestra were closed in 2011 and a new school, Global Learning Academy, was built for them behind the district’s administrative offices for $17 million. The new school’s enrollment is 817 children.

Yes, I know that 273 (Yniestra) +232 (Hallmark) doesn’t total 817, but Superintendent Thomas surprised the parents at Bibbs Elementary when he called a town hall meeting at St. John Divine Baptist Church and announced last year that he was closing their school, too, even though it had pulled its grade up to a “C.” The additional students helped get the GLA enrollment over 800 students.

A school with 367 kids gets replaced. Another with 370 is closed. The reasons are clear as black and white.