The challenges facing educators in the North Florida’s poorest counties: Slate and USA Today report on Gadsden and Jefferson Counties

Every North Florida educator at every level should read Slate’s piece titled “The New Diploma Mills”, which nominally focuses on the shortcomings of online credit recovery courses that are used to boost high school graduation rates.  Author Zoe Kirch argues that these online courses often short-circuit learning, although she also points out that some students seem to learn better than they would in the physical classrooms of their impoverished schools.

Much of the article describes the situation at West Gadsden High School (which this fall will be consolidated with East Gadsden High School), and the consequences of the school’s reliance on online credit recovery are laid bare. But Kirch goes farther and reports on the circumstances that led to the present situation, providing a heart-rending account of some of the challenges facing high school educators in Gadsden County, which is the western neighbor of the high-performing Leon County school system and which is only a short drive west of Florida State University – one of the state’s two “preeminent” universities – and the Florida Capitol.

For Kirch, the bottom line for online credit recovery courses is this:  “The students most in need of inspiring teachers are all too often placed in front of computer screens and told to learn material independently, without adequate support.”  Kirch describes how some West Gadsden students short-circuit the presumed rigor of the online courses, and how administrators generally ignore this.

But Kirch’s brief description of Gadsden County should capture the attention of every FSU faculty member who only knows Gadsden as a series of exits on I-10:

The income divide in Gadsden is stark: Though it’s still home to a handful of Coca Cola stock-owning millionaires, the median household income is $36,000, about a quarter less than the statewide average. Once the setting of a lucrative shade tobacco industry, the county offers limited job opportunities to today’s locals. Among their options: mushroom-picking, working in fast food, staffing a nearby hospital, and guarding inmates at the local prison.

“Around here, there’s just not a lot,” said Frances Brown, who until recently oversaw the virtual learning program at West Gadsden High for an annual income of $16,000. The lack of job opportunities makes it hard to convince students that school matters, Brown said. “How many [students] are gonna use chemistry in life? How many are gonna use geometry?”

Gadsden has the largest percentage of black students of any traditional school district in Florida. Nearly three-quarters of its students are black, just under 20 percent are Latino, and fewer than 4 percent are white. Three-quarters are considered economically disadvantaged by the state. For most, higher education isn’t in the picture: Only about 20 percent of West Gadsden’s graduates go to college.

While Gadsden County is Leon’s western neighbor, the county on Leon’s eastern side, Jefferson, has its own severe problems with poverty, economic opportunity and education.  In fact, the national spotlight was shown on Jefferson County last week by USA Today, which carried an article by Tallahassee Democrat reporter Ryan Dailey on the impending conversion of Jefferson’s entire 700-student school district to a single charter school that will be publicly funded but privately managed.  As Dailey reported,

Half the district’s students have been held back two or more times. Its four-year high school graduation rate was 70% for the 2015-16 school years, more than 10 percentage points below the state average.

The district has also had severe financial difficulties for years, according to Dailey:

In August, the Florida Department of Education declared a state of financial emergency for Jefferson County schools, the only Florida district in such condition, and appointed a state oversight board late last year. The county school district, which previously had operated under a financial emergency oversight board from April 2009 to June 2011, submitted three previous plans for improvement that state officials rejected.

Both rural districts have trouble retaining teachers, according to Kirch and Dailey.  According to the Florida Department of Education, the average teacher salaries in the 2015-16 school year in Gadsden and Jefferson Counties were $35,474 and $41,584, respectively.  Leon County’s average was $45,149.  The average salaries for the South Georgia counties bordering on Gadsden, Leon and Jefferson (according to a compilation by the Atlanta Journal Constitution) were $52,439 (Decatur County), $51,766 (Grady County), $50,243 (Thomas County), and $47,128 (Brooks County).

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