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Parents Saved One Putnam County School, But Parents At Another Worry About Closure’s Impact On Black Students

Jenkins Middle School has for generations been pivotal to the education of many students in Palatka – particularly its Black students.

To the community’s dismay, it looks like it’s nearing the end of its days.

The Putnam County School Board in February approved a revitalization plan with a 3-2 vote that will eventually downsize the district from 18 to 10 schools, closing some along the way.

Those closures include Jenkins, which was built in 1955. The rest of the plan calls for building or rebuilding facilities across the district over a 10-year span.

Despite pleas from the community at the school board meeting to save Jenkins, or to at least slow down the plan, the district chose to advance with the proposal, leaving many with ties to the school devastated.

Rebekah Cordova, a Jenkins parent and professor of education at the University of Florida, was one of the speakers at the February meeting who fought to save Jenkins from closure.

“I think it's a pretty important school in that it's one of the most racially diverse schools in Putnam County; we're a pretty segregated school system,” she said. “So, when a school like Jenkins is shut down, it often just means further segregation and into different spaces.”

In the original draft of the revitalization plan, Melrose Elementary School was slated to close. Officials, however, scrapped that idea after parent pushback, as well as the district’s adoption of a grades K-6/7-12 model that pivoted to mainly focus on closing middle schools, keeping Jenkins vulnerable.

“They basically told us that they would justify keeping Melrose open because they said Melrose meant something to that community,” Cordova said. “And then they basically decided that the Jenkins community, which is primarily attended by Black students, didn't mean anything to our community – whereas Melrose is predominantly white. So, to me to close it down also means that the district is just kind of doubling down on its disenfranchisement of its Black students and other community members.”

The school board dismissed claims of racial bias at the school board meeting in February.

“It’s not fun to have people come and tell you you’re heartless and cruel and you just woke up one morning and decided to ruin their school and their neighborhood,” School Board Member David Buckles said at the Feb. 16 meeting. “I don’t see that there’s a racial issue – that’s just not even worth discussing to me. All the schools are going to be impacted to some degree and they’re going to all be improved under this current plan.”

Buckles said in the past, he pushed for the creation of a site where educational memorabilia would be displayed at Jenkins in honor of the Black community, although it wasn’t approved.

The school is named after Robert H. Jenkins Jr., a Marine Corps Private 1st Class and Vietnam War hero awarded the Medal of Honor. He graduated from Palatka Central Academy, an all-Black high school, in 1967. At just 20 years old, he sacrificed himself to save another soldier by springing on him and guarding him with his body following the explosion from a hand grenade, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

Still, the Jenkins name on a Putnam County school will not go away with the middle school’s closure; the school board voted April 6 to rename Interlachen Elementary School after him to continue honoring his legacy.

Putnam County Schools Superintendent Rick Surrency was principal at Jenkins for 10 years.

“This is nothing against Jenkins at all. Believe me, there’s nobody that loves Jenkins more than I do,” he said at the meeting. “But I’m thinking of years from now. We’re going to look back and say: ‘You know what, we took some chances, we took some risks, and the kids that went to Jenkins, that went to Melrose, all these kids are going to have a benefit like we cannot imagine.’”

He said he was hopeful that the new grades 7-12 model will benefit students academically, as they will no longer have to experience a transition period between middle and high school and will be better positioned to take advantage of acceleration and career programs available at the high school level.

Cordova also said that many families sending their children to Melrose don’t live in Putnam County, and were able to leverage the threat of pulling their students out of the county school system in their fight to keep Melrose open – which would further exacerbate the county’s declining enrollment.

To be exact, 71 Melrose students commuted this school year from outside of the county.

Cordova, along with others, originally attempted to contact several news outlets to gain coverage for Jenkins in its fight – to no avail.

“I’m not willing to give up yet,” she said. “It's not happened yet. Lots of things can happen between now and there's a lot of the story that has yet to be been told.”

Time is limited though, as the school will close its doors to students at the end of the 2020-2021 academic year.

Black students comprise 46% of the Jenkins student body.

“It [Jenkins] prepared me, it gave me a safe place to be at because you know there’s other people that look like me,” said 19-year-old Tevel Adams, a former student at the school. “It made me feel comfortable going to that school verses a predominately white institution.”

He's disappointed that other Black students won’t be able to have the same experience as him.

“I was surprised because there’s not a lot of change that goes on in Palatka and Putnam County in general,” he said.

Tevel’s cousin, eighth grader Kaliah Edwards, echoed the same sentiment: that Jenkins was a place where she felt she could embrace her identity as a Black student. Although she’s advancing to high school, she heard from many seventh graders that they were distressed about having to move schools, she said.

“I believe it’s making an impact on the community because Jenkins is a school that mostly everyone in Palatka went to,” Edwards said. “Some people don’t want their kids going to Palatka High School because they’re only in seventh grade and they’ll be there with eighteen-year-olds and nineteen-year-olds.”

Interlachen resident Elizabeth Bacon-Smith also spoke at the Feb. 16 school board meeting in favor of protecting Jenkins, E.H. Miller School and Mellon Elementary School. She was passionate about the decision, having worked as a counselor at what is now the Florida Department of Children and Families and at Communities in Schools, a non-profit organization where she met with an at-risk child each week.

“Clients that I had, stability was the main issue in their home success and in their school success,” she said. “So, adding the instability [by closing schools] is only going to make everything worse.”

Bacon-Smith also supported the successful effort to save Melrose Elementary, pledging money to the fund that would provide portables for the school in order to keep it open while new buildings are constructed.

“I think there’s more disposable income in that community,” she said. “I think there’s more political engagement in that community than in the downtown Palatka schools where people are from all different economic groups and just not as organized.”

As an unincorporated community at the crossroads of four counties, Melrose doesn’t have its own city demographics. However, the median household income in the Melrose Elementary zip code is $47,431, supported by this data. Of course, a significant number of students live outside of the school zone. In 2019, the median household income in Palatka was $18,062, according to these figures.

In the end, the Jenkins community wasn’t as fortunate as those who fought to keep Melrose open.

It boiled down to more than fortune, though. The district’s amendment of the new plan favored the K-6/7-12 model, which rendered middle schools unnecessary in the future. While no elementary schools are closing in this first phase of the plan, the district’s current plan indicates that in the coming years Melrose will be the only school to acquire portables to house students while it undergoes construction.

“They care about their children as much as the people in Melrose do – across the board they do,” she said. “But they are not as engaged and empowered as the Melrose people feel.”

Kala is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.