Summer is over for students in Northwest Florida, as they head back to class Monday for the start of the 2019-2020 school year.
There is a lot of optimism for the new year, and offiials have been checking off a long list of things that had to be done to get ready.
“You make sure that bus routes are established, drivers have an opportunity to be trained and run their routes in advance. We try to push out to parents information that school is about to begin,” said Malcolm Thomas, Superintendent for the Escambia County School District.
Teachers in the district have been back on the job a little over a week, preparing their classrooms and lesson plans, and helping new students get themselves situated.
“The week right before school, (there’s) a lot of activity, particularly with high school students coming on (campus): picking up their initial schedules; trying to figure out where they’re going to go,” explained Thomas. “The ones that are most interested always are those students that are in transition, those incoming sixth graders, first time in middle school.”
“What you’ll do is you’ll meet outside the locker room right there on day one,” explained Workman Middle School Assistant Principal Crystal Marr during orientation at the school on Thursday. “And, your P.E. teacher, who do you have?”
“Mr. Williams,” responded new seventh grade transfer Jade Solchenberger.
This interaction with Marr was typical of those taking place throughout the school as parents and students like Jason Solchenberger and his 12-year-old daughter Jade try to get the lay of the land to help ease first day jitters.
Their brief conversation concludes, “Alright, and your name is Jade? Nice to meet you, Jade,” said Ms. Marr, identifying herself. “Welcome.”
“So we’re just trying to get an idea of how far she’s got to go between classes and the best route for her to go,” said Solchenberger. “So, that’s what we’re doing, just mapping it out.”
Workman is welcoming about 300 new students like Jade and has an enrollment of about 1,000 students.
Districtwide, Escambia has about 40,000 students reporting back to class.
In 2018, the district began the year opening two new schools, Kingsfield Elementary and Beulah Middle. Superintendent Thomas says the big facility change this year is the relocation of West Florida High School from Long Leaf Drive to the campus of the old Woodham Middle school, which previously was a high school for 42 years beginning in 1965.
“We took an aging school, renovated it on the inside and will probably get another 50-60 years of use out of that building because of the work that we’ve done,” said Thomas, explaining that the district retooled all of the school’s major systems, including air conditioning and some of the plumbing.
Moving West Florida Tech opened up its old space for Escambia’s Success Academy, which serves alternatively placed students who are “at-risk” of leaving school prior to graduation.
The plan is to take advantage of the shared space with George Stone Technical College by providing Academy students with vocational training as part of their academics.
“Academics have long not been their strengths and we know that the best we can do for these youngsters is to give them a skill,” said Thomas. “If we can teach them how to fix an air conditioner, how to be a plumber, they can go out and be a productive citizen and support their own family. And, at the end of the day, that’s really what it’s all about.”
As the new school year begins and Thomas moves into the last year of his three terms in office, the superintendent has set a goal of having all schools in the district score “C” or above on the state accountability system. Last year, there were four “D” schools.
With a little over 32,000 students, Okaloosa is looking to maintain its spot as one of the top performing districts in the state. The district didn’t miss a beat last year, despite the turmoil that led to the suspension and eventual resignation of former Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson for her handling of a report of child abuse in the district.
“We’ve talked with our principals, our teachers. You know, we’re all about moving forward,” said Marcus Chambers, Okaloosa’s new school superintendent. The former assistant was appointed to complete Jackson’s term ending in 2020.
“We have a fantastic school district and great partnerships, amazing students and families and we are moving forward and it’s a new day in Okaloosa County.”
Academically, Superintendent Chambers highlighted the district’s focus on Career Technical Education (CTE) in Okaloosa’s middle and high schools, ensuring the curriculum reflects local industry.
“For example, advanced manufacturing is something that you’re going to see more and more in Okaloosa County because in this local area there’s a lot of advanced manufacturing. So, that is something that we’re trying to do to ensure that the courses that we have match our local economy.”
Such curriculum is also a priority in the Santa Rosa County School District. Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick says the district is looking to expand its successful STEAM initiative, which incorporates art education.
“We tell students that it’s important to learn about mathematics and science and language arts and writing and reading,” said Wyrosdick. “But, it’s also important that you become a high quality leader in this world of work, where you can collaborate, facilitate; you can communicate and have some great creativity.”
Wyrosdick credits the STEAM initiative with helping Santa Rosa earn its district grade of A.
He says one of the biggest issues for the district is keeping pace with enrollment growth, which is now above 28,000.
“This is both impressive and daunting as we look at the growth we’re experienced, especially over the past five years,” said Wyrosdick. “We’re back into that 400-500 student growth per year, with some as high as 550.”
According to Wyrosdick, Santa Rosa welcomed more than 70 new students in just the last couple of weeks.
The district has been busy hiring, but officials expect to start the school year with 13 teaching vacancies, and an even greater shortage of paraprofessionals, or teachers’ assistants.
“The students are growing, not just in number, but in diversity of need and that makes staffing very difficult to be accurate with,” Wyrosdick said. He explained that the district will spend the next few weeks working to reconcile the classroom staffing issue.
This exercise to fill classroom vacancies is also taking place in districts across the region. At last check, Escambia still needed to hire about 20 teachers, while Okaloosa was 14 teachers short.