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Alachua County Public Schools Seek Grant To Balance Achievement Gaps

File Photo: Gore starts the day by conducting a mathematics review with her fourth grade students at Idylwild Elementary School in Gainesville. (Photos by Jessica Kate Holmer/WUFT News)
File Photo: Gore starts the day by conducting a mathematics review with her fourth grade students at Idylwild Elementary School in Gainesville. (Photos by Jessica Kate Holmer/WUFT News)

St. Johns County stretches along Northeast Florida's coastline with its manicured golf courses and the nation’s oldest city, St. Augustine. By contrast, Alachua County is landlocked and known for its sweeping wetlands and the University of Florida. But location and environment are not the only contrasts — the state school assessment rankings show a contrast between the two for their school districts.

According to school district grades compiled by the Florida Department of Education (FDOE), St. Johns County School District is the highest rated school district in the state for the 2017-2018 school year, receiving a letter grade of A for 13 consecutive years. And while Alachua County Public Schools (ACPS) received an overall B for 2018, six individual schools received Ds. 

To address this achievement gap, Alachua County School District has asked for $1.2 million in grants to further assist schools in need.

Jackie Johnson, the public information officer at ACPS, said the county has applied for the Unified School Improvement Grant (UNISIG), a government-funded grant that provides funds to Local Education Agencies (LEAs) in selected priority schools. The grant would help struggling schools in the area, specifically struggling schools such as Lake Forest Elementary, Myra Terwilliger Elementary and W.A. Metcalfe Elementary, which all received a D letter grade in FDOEs 2018 report.

Johnson said the county hopes to hear if the grant is approved within the next couple of weeks. 

St. Johns County schools do not face the same challenges as other county school districts in the state for issues related to poverty and educational inequity.

“Just about every study will point out the strong correlation between neighborhood income and family income and academic achievement,” Johnson said. “If you take a look at the income level at a county like St. Johns, it’s significantly different than the income level at a district like Alachua.”

Michael Zuaro, a teacher at the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine, said the St. John County School District does a good job providing its teachers with appropriate resources and tools to be good educators. However, Zuaro recognizes that demographics play a role in the district’s success.

“I see education as a local issue,” Zuaro said. “It is only going to be as good or bad as the population it is serving.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median household income for residents in St. Johns County is $73,640, while Alachua County's is much lower at $45,478. Also, St. Johns County's poverty rate is 8.3 percent, while Alachua County’s poverty rate is much higher at 21.2 percent.

Income levels are one of the hurdles that Alachua County has to face to address its achievement gap. Johnson said the Office of Education and Outreach has developed an equity plan and has established training and community partnerships. According to ACPS's website, the Office of Education Equity and Outreach has “already conducted extensive training with teachers and administrators on culturally responsive classrooms.”

Despite the challengers the county faces, Johnson said, Alachua County is continuing to improve. For the past three years, the FDOE has given Alachua County a B letter grade, recovering from a C in both 2013 and 2014.

F.W. Buchholz High School in Gainesville is the top-rated school in Alachua County, according to FDOE. James TenBieg, the school’s principal, said the success of the school boils down to teachers.

“We look for teachers that have the ability to build relationships and are willing to put forth the effort required in the classroom today,” TenBieg said. “Teachers have to be able to build relationships with kids, to encourage kids, to motivate kids, spend extra time with the kids.”

TenBieg added that fewer people are pursuing a career in education due to low salaries.

According to the Florida Department of Education, the average salary for teachers in the state is $48,168. St. Johns, at $45,607, comes closer to the state average than Alachua County, at $42,839, which falls well behind. 

“I would look at anything that we can put forth out there to assist and to provide assistance to our teachers, TenBieg said. “It starts in the classroom. You have to support those people in the trenches.”

Sean Denison is a reporter for WUFT News. He can be contacted at news@wuft.org or by calling 352-392-6397.