MAXWELL:  “Failing’ school finds many successes

12/15/1999 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



Last Friday afternoon, the Liberty City Charter School _ Florida’s first charter campus _ held its fourth annual Christmas program. All 205 pupils in K-5 were there, and all 11 teachers were there.

Amazingly, at this time of day, more than a dozen parents were there, too. They had taken off work to be with their children. The significance of this fact alone accounts for much of the school’s early success. During the program, each class either performed a skit, recited a poem, danced or sang. The kids had fun, and the mothers and fathers watched adoringly and applauded.

Four years ago, before Jeb Bush, then head of the non-profit Foundation for Florida’s Future, and T. Willard Fair, president of the Miami Urban League, founded the school, such a scene would have been impossible to imagine in this the poorest area in Miami, where the public schools are some of the nation’s most dysfunctional.

Despite its recent failing grade of D on the state’s new tests that evaluate public schools, Liberty City Charter is thriving. Although disappointed that her students failed and believing that the tests cannot accurately measure intangibles such as parental involvement and campus safety, principal Katrina Wilson-Davis supports the grading system.

“Our being rated a failing school has been a shot in the arm in a lot of ways,” she said. “It’s something like taking an immunization shot. At first it makes you sick, but it makes you well. It helped us to focus on our children more. It told us what we can do for our children and make them better than they currently are. Being rated a failing school is not an easy thing to swallow _ not by any means. But still, I will venture to say that in the long run, it’s going to be good for our children.”

Wilson-Davis is optimistic because, as a charter school _ an independent public institution free of many of the Department of Education’s restrictions _ Liberty City is not trapped in the one-size-fits-all philosophy governing traditional campuses. She has the autonomy to establish a curriculum and other services that best serve her all-black student body selected by lottery from various income levels.

A major portion of each school day, for example, is dedicated to character building and citizenship, subjects absent from nearby public schools.

But Wilson-Davis and her faculty face some major obstacles in teaching the children of this community that is separated both physically and economically from Miami’s bustling downtown by Interstate 95.

“We basically have an uneducated population,” she said. “By uneducated, I mean unknowledgeable. The adults aren’t fully educated on the things they can do to help their children. A lot of parents trust the school to do their job and, in some instances, don’t take an active role in making sure their children are ready when they come to school.

“A lot of parents complain that the homework is too difficult or that they can’t help their children with the homework. Our parents are great if they’re told what to do. They need to know, though, that their children need to be prepped much earlier. Kids are now starting kindergarten knowing the alphabet, knowing how to read and how to write. Some children are already computer literate. Our kids are coming to the table without having these experiences. In too many cases, the preschool preparation has not been done, so we’re working against the grain. We must teach some of our parents that education is a value. So, the continuum from what the school is doing and what is being reinforced in the home is not there a lot of the time.”

Another problem, Wilson-Davis said, is that many pupils watch TV and videos into the early morning. They come to school tired and unproductive, disrupting the equilibrium of their classes. She said she spends many hours explaining to parents the importance of sending their children to bed early and to getting them to school on time _ and feeling positive about themselves.

Plain-spoken and charismatic, Wilson-Davis envisions a bright future for Liberty City Charter. She plans to build a new facility with classrooms equipped with the latest technology.

“Mainly, though, I expect to have a student body that is strong academically,” she said. “I expect parents to be heavily involved, trained and acclimated to the demands of this school and their children. I expect to have a top-notch school. Our goal is to become a beacon of hope for children coming through here. We want to provide them with an essential education, to lay the foundation for them to be able to do anything they choose to.”