Turning around a troubled school isn't easy, and Florida lawmakers have tried many formulas over the years. Now, they're taking a closer look into a program in Orlando--a community school. It's one of the state's oldest and most successful.
Orlando's Evans High School could serve as a model in turning a failing school into a neighborhood treasure.
Timothy Only recalls the moment he learned he was headed for one of Orlando's most troubled public schools, Evans High in Orlando's Pine Hills area.
"I was like, 'Ah, not Evans,'" Only told the House PreK-12 Innovation Subcommittee on Thursday, "because in Orlando, Evans is considered as a school that you don't want to go to. So many problems, violence – it had a bad reputation."
On Thursday, the House subcommittee learned how one approach to turning around a troubled school increased graduation and income rates at Evans High, while driving down crime and other social ills.
Only attended Evans not long after it became Florida's first community partnership school in 2011. A wide array of services was now available: food, health care, counseling, tutoring, internships, and other supports – not only to students and their families but to the entire neighborhood.
"I used every service at the community school down to the mental health, the internships, the clothing, the food pantry, the Fame House, which is another place where kids who don't have a place to stay, they can go live there because they're dealing with a lot of issues at home," he recalled.
After a rough start, Only ended up as president of his senior class at Evans. He now studies criminology at Florida State University and is helping to set up a new community partnership school at Tallahassee's Sabal Palm Elementary.
There are 17 such schools statewide, a project started by the Children's Home Society and housed at the University of Central Florida. The schools address hunger, poverty, violence, illness, abuse, and neglect.
"This frees up our teachers to teach and alleviates them of the other responsibilities or roles they find themselves playing - like parent, advocate, or therapist," says Melanie Rodriguez of UCF's Center for Community Schools.
Jarvis Wheeler manages the Children's Home Society program at Evans. He points to the data: a decrease in the most severe behavioral referrals - 1,651 during the 2012-2013 school year to 846 five years later. Graduation rates went up from 64 percent in 2010-2011 to 88 percent last year.
"For every high school graduate, their potential income goes up about $10,000," Wheeler told lawmakers, "and for every high school graduate, they avoid society costs potentially such as teenage pregnancy, juvenile justice, and delinquency, and that estimates to over $290,000 per individual."
Committee Chairman Ralph Massullo, a Citrus County Republican, asked Evans Principal Rolando Bailey how he managed to ask more of his teachers yet retain them at high rates – 84 percent for the last school year. Bailey says the community partnership school has been so successful, its graduates are entering the workforce.
"My last five hires at Evans High School were Evans High School graduates," he said. "I think that's critical because now you don't have to worry or answer the question, 'Are they invested?' When you have individuals who are invested, they understand and now they mirror what they see. And also I would say that the retention comes through the support. You know, teachers, when they see their work is meaningful and purposeful and they see the outcomes, then they're all in."
The Community Partnership Schools are asking the Legislature for $5.8 million for the next fiscal year. All such schools are required to provide a 25 percent match for these funds; most generate more.
*Correction: The initial story reported the Community Partnership Schools are asking for $1.4 million. Their request is $5.8 million.