Parents, teachers, children, faculty, retired teachers and community members gathered in Terwilliger Elementary's school cafeteria to discuss options for the school and share their concerns for Terwilliger’s students Tuesday night, October 23, 2018. The school has received a D grade from the state the past three years. (Taylor Girtman/WUFT News)
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Terwilliger Elementary Faces Fragile Future

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If Myra Terwilliger Elementary doesn’t get it’s performance up, the Alachua County school district will likely bring in an outside operator, administrators said in a meeting Tuesday. The school must score a state grade of C or higher to stay as it is.

The elementary school located in northwest Gainesville has received a D rating for the past three years. It’s one of six schools in Alachua County to receive a failing grade this year.

School district administrators have three options if it doesn’t improve: closing the school, converting it to a charter or bringing in an outside operator.

Jennie Wise, Alachua County Public Schools’ executive director of curriculum, said the district is leaning towards contracting an outside operator if Terwilliger Elementary does not improve in the current academic year, but remains optimistic that won’t be necessary.

Bringing in an outside operator would not require overhauling the school’s faculty.  Existing faculty and administration would remain unless a teacher scored below “effective” on VAM evaluations, the state-mandated model, Wise said.

Tuesday night, parents, teachers, children, faculty, retired teachers and community members gathered in the school’s cafeteria to discuss options for the school and share their concerns for Terwilliger’s students, specifically the lack of supplies and resources.

Wise explained to the crowd that the school district plans to use an additional $300,000 of state and federal funding to provide training, extend learning days and shore up shortages in classroom and curriculum materials.

 Several parents in attendance said an external operator would not know the Terwilliger community. 

Dustin Sims, regional executive director for the Florida Department of Education, explained the external operator would be identified in January and use the spring and summer to become acquainted with the school and community, as dictated by state legislation, giving them time to build relationships with teachers, students and the principal.

Soshema Pate, said her son, a second-grader, was almost in tears when they learned the school could close. For Pate, moving schools would mean needing to find new after-school care further away from her work.

As Terwilliger’s PTA president, Pate strives to build parental support and gather enough books for every student to have the necessary texts to take home each day.  She said take home sets could increase parents’ involvement in reading to their children, which would improve reading in the classroom.

“Every little bit of help to teachers means the world to them,” Pate said.

Terwilliger’s struggles are not limited to the classroom, however. Many of it’s students and families are dealing with issues at home that require social, emotional and mental health support.

“We recognize how important it is, it isn’t just academics,” Wise said. “If you don’t have that social, emotional learning or need met, it’s hard to get to the academic needs.”

Wise said a new grant was given to hire social workers within the school district, and Terwilliger will be one of the first to receive this additional aid.

Terwilliger’s principal, Ashlea Zeller, said she appreciates the support from the community and district, and is excited improve her school.

“I love the school that I’m at,” Zeller said. “I love the kids that I work with. I love the teachers that are here and I know that they give their best every day.”

Terwilliger Elementary won’t know its grade until early next summer, but is required by law to starting planning for an uncertain future.

About Taylor Girtman

Taylor Girtman is a reporter for WUFT News. She can be contacted at news@wuft.org or by calling 352-392-6397.

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