Engaged Families and Communities

Volunteers work on Shank Middle School's facelift. Photos from the Florida Education Association.

Community Comes Together for Transformation

By Barbara Moldauer

The transformation of James A. Shanks Middle School in Quincy, Florida, is the story of a community coming together to create a great public school — the result of a series of community conversations supported by NEA’s Public Engagement Project in collaboration with the Florida Education Association.

It begins with a dramatic initiative to inspire kids to aim high: a facelift for the school itself, to make the dilapidated facility as bright as the future the community is determined to give its children. Five hundred volunteers spent eight days painting walls, replacing floors, installing sod, and planting trees. Their sweat equity and donated materials saved the Gadsden school district more than $100,000.

Students responded just as the community had hoped. Disciplinary action dropped and achievement climbed in core academic subjects such as reading and math. In 2010, nine out of 10 students were at or above grade level in writing.

Now, students are giving back by creating a community garden, a service-learning project to boost STEM skills sponsored by NEA’s Public Engagement Project and the Florida Education Association. Service-learning, a proven means of motivating students, entails using academic knowledge to solve real-life problems — for example, to calculate the area of the semi-circular garden and analyze the mineral content of the soil.

Roosevelt Sea, the charismatic young math teacher leading the project — a “rookie of the year,” now in his third year teaching — faced the same challenges his students face. He was raised in rural Georgia by a single mother who had her first child, his sister, when she was just 16. Money was tight but she vowed that both her children would go to college. They did and so did she, eventually becoming a registered nurse.

“My mother taught me that education is everything,” said Sea.

Twenty-plus pairs of eyes turn to him as he begins class with a review of plans for the community garden.

“What will we be growing?”

Enthusiastic cries ring out, “Tomatoes! Bell and jalapeno peppers! Squash! Lettuce! Okra! Cucumbers! Collard greens!”

“And what else will we be doing?”

This time, students are so eager to respond they rise from their chairs, almost shouting, “Farmers market day! Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign!”

Clearly, for these students, the most exciting part of the community garden is its connection to the first lady. She is a role model and an inspiration, just as their teacher is. “We show them what success looks like,” said Sea.

Spanish moss is more common in Quincy than graffiti, but the face of poverty is the same in rural and urban America. Eighty percent of the 610 students at Shanks are African American and 18 percent are Hispanic, children of migrant agricultural workers. Eighty-five percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

The Coca Cola factory that once offered good-paying jobs closed long ago. Today, a high school graduate can earn $30,000 a year at the local correctional facility. Other local employment opportunities are limited: $7.25 an hour minimum-wage jobs at fast food chains and retail outlets, or seasonal agricultural work like picking and packing tomatoes.

Economic circumstances like these tend to be associated with inner cities, yet the rate of poverty among urban and rural students is the same: 20 percent. More than three million students — one in five — live and attend school in depressed rural areas like Gadsden County.

Prospects are brighter in next-door Leon County, where Tallahassee, the state capital is located. But there, as elsewhere, pay for unskilled labor is low and competition is steep for apprenticeships in skilled trades — for example, to become a plumber or electrician. To land a job that pays a living wage, most students at Shanks Middle School will need to be better educated than their parents. The community means to see that they are.

“If a kid fails, the whole community fails. To close achievement gaps and help kids succeed, we need to strengthen relationships among students, teachers, families, and the community — it’s the only way,” said Douglas Harris, FEA Western Regional Specialist, organizer of the community conversations, and a member of — and partner with — the Gadsden County Coalition for Change.

The main elements of the coalition’s plan — high expectations and parental involvement — are the norm in affluent suburbs. Not in Quincy. Many students live with grandparents or extended family, not their parents. Many caretakers have limited education themselves, so they find school intimidating. “They can’t check algebra homework because they never took algebra themselves,” said Sea.

Innovative incentives to increase participation have gotten good results — for example, attendance at PTA meetings has risen sixfold since the introduction of “jeans therapy,” allowing a student to wear jeans to school if a family member goes to a meeting. Normal attire is uniforms that combine the bold colors of the school’s mascot, the tiger, and sedate neutrals: polo shirts in black, orange or white paired with khaki or black bottoms On Thursday, “dress for success” day, girls may don dresses while boys wear white dress shirts, black ties, and black pants.

Simple steps any caring adult can take are emphasized as well: Tell kids to take their studies seriously — their future depends on it. Sign homework so the teacher knows you saw it. Read to your kids for 20 minutes every day — or have them read to you.

The makeover of the facility, greater parental involvement, and growing community support have contributed to higher aspirations and rising student achievement at Shanks Middle School. The biggest factor, however, says principal Juanita Ellis, is “the quality staff. We have really dynamic, really wonderful teachers.”

But turnover among teachers is high and that troubles Ellis, especially because the source of the problem is beyond her control. “Many teachers stay for three years and then leave for better-paying jobs in more affluent communities. We lose most of our teachers to Leon County, since it’s so close.”

In 1886, when the Florida Education Association first formed, most teachers in the state had a sixth-grade education and no formal training in teaching. Monthly wages for teachers ranged from a low of $20 in Gadsden County to a high of $77.50 in Polk County.

Florida now has 67 school districts and Gadsden is still dead last in teacher pay. In 2010, on average, Gadsden teachers earned less than $36,000 a year while Polk and Leon teachers earned about $43,000 a year. The average annual salary for all Florida teachers was higher — nearly $47,000.

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