To lawmakers, Florida's first all-charter school district is ‘a success story’ worth replicating. Chronic discipline challenges complicate that narrative.

By Jessica Bakeman

To state leaders who support charter schools, rural Jefferson County was a poster child for public school failure.

By the summer of 2016, the small Panhandle school district had racked up a decade of Ds and Fs under Florida’s high-stakes system for rating school performance. More than half of its middle/high school students had been held back at least twice. At the hands of a dysfunctional local government, the district had devolved into one of the worst in Florida.

Republican education reformers saw Jefferson County as ripe for private intervention, an opportunity to test their theory that privatization could be the cure.

Now, the only public schools left in Jefferson County are charter schools, funded with taxpayer dollars but operated by a private organization from South Florida instead of a local school board chosen by voters.

Florida’s first and only all-charter school district was engineered by unelected state bureaucrats at then-Gov. Rick Scott’s Department of Education, funded by the Legislature and carried out by Somerset Academy, Inc., a rapidly expanding network that’s affiliated with a politically connected for-profit company in Miami.

Two years into Jefferson County’s transformation, the still-unproven charter-district "experiment" is being used to justify a potentially massive expansion of charter schools in the state’s poorest communities. A state law dubbed "schools of hope," first passed in 2017 and broadened this year, offers millions of dollars to charter schools that open near traditional public schools that have struggled for years.

Jefferson County is home to the first charter "schools of hope." Neighborhoods in Miami, Tampa and Jacksonville are next.

Learn more about what's next for "schools of hope." »

For some of Jefferson’s roughly 800 students, the unprecedented private takeover has been transformational.

"Somerset, they taught us that we have a chance at life, … and that we’re not just numbers. We actually mean something," Ayianna Bradley, then a high school junior, told lawmakers during a House education committee meeting in February.

"People told me, ‘Just because you're from Monticello, you're not going to be anything,’" she said, referring to the small city in Jefferson County. "I want to come back with my master's and just show it in their face: ‘I did it!’"

But it’s not as if the district’s problems have disappeared. Somerset Academy Jefferson County is grappling with many of the same challenges that plagued the traditional public schools that preceded them: inadequate resources to address students' behavioral problems, in some cases occurring alongside disabilities and mental illnesses; stagnant enrollment; low test scores; and an uncertain future.

"I have no faith in the school system," said Kathy Woody. She said her son was jailed and received an in-school suspension after a major fight that took place on campus in November 2017. He was 14 then, and he has a learning disability.

"If you would give me a million dollars or close the school down, I wouldn't even take the money," Woody said. "Close the school down, bus these kids somewhere where somebody is going to care for them."

During a three-year investigation, WLRN has found:

Florida's first brick school building
Florida's first brick school building, this old high school in downtown Monticello, was built by enslaved people in 1852. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.
© By Jessica Bakeman/WLRN

‘Everybody’s watching’: A principal’s high-stakes assignment

Jefferson County is dotted with shuttered schools that tell two painful and intertwined stories: the gradual demise of public education in this community, and the deep divisions forged by a history of racial injustice.

There’s an empty white-columned high school in downtown Monticello, the first brick school building in Florida: a national landmark. Slaves built it in 1852.

A school that was originally founded to serve only black children, and then became the district’s middle school after desegregation in 1970, was later closed down. A metal historical marker explaining the building’s significance stands in front of it like a headstone, flanked by a barbed-wire fence draped in moss.

An elementary school with no doors on the classrooms was left behind two years ago when the state required the Jefferson County district to consolidate its schools onto one campus to save money.

For years, hundreds of Jefferson County parents — most of them white — took their kids elsewhere to get an education. But the kids who couldn’t afford to escape were left in struggling, segregated schools. Some of them felt trapped in the rural community of about 14,000 people.

"It’s really hard to dream in Monticello," said Shakila Scott, whose son attended the Somerset elementary school there before the family moved to nearby Tallahassee. "It's like, you're stuck inside of a box. You really don't dream of going anywhere, and you don't really dream of anything being built there."

Lazarus Tucker was a senior last year at the Somerset high school in Jefferson.

"Monticello, it's like nothing down here for you," he said. "You’ve got to travel to get what you want to get, and where you want to be."

Leola Tucker with her children
Leola Tucker with her children, Lakaylin and Lazarus Tucker, in front of their Monticello home in March.
© By Jessica Bakeman/WLRN

The principal of Somerset Academy Jefferson County is from a small town in southern Illinois and sees his own childhood in the experiences of his students.

"I grew up in a place like this," Cory Oliver said during an interview in August 2017, a few days before the charter schools welcomed students for the first time. "That school that I came from in a small little town has been very successful with its kids. Just, I want to give that back."

Oliver is a big white guy with a goatee, sometimes a scruffy beard. He doesn’t fasten the top buttons on his dress shirts. Previously, he was a combat engineer in the Army and a drummer in a rock band.

The placard on the door of his office says, "I’m Superman." The comic book hero is the main theme of his office decor: There’s a Christmas stocking and a full costume, both pinned to the wall, and an office chair that looks like Superman’s torso with a big red "S" and a six pack.

The motif goes back almost a decade, when Oliver was teaching English at a Somerset high school in Broward County. He gave his students Superman pins to wear and told them to look down at the pins when they felt discouraged.

He told them: "I want you to remember that you can do anything."

After that, he started getting all the Superman gifts.

Oliver is the kind of principal who tells kids they can do anything — and believes it. Every day, he reminds them, "I love you."

Principal Cory Oliver Superman-themed gifts
Over the years, students have given Principal Cory Oliver Superman-themed gifts, which now fill his office at Somerset Academy Jefferson County.
© By Jessica Bakeman/WLRN

Oliver first led a turnaround effort at a struggling charter school in Key West. When Somerset agreed to take over Jefferson County, administrators asked him to lead the charge, overseeing about 800 students in three schools on one campus. He moved to Tallahassee with his family, and his wife, Courtney Oliver, also took a job as an administrator in Jefferson.

Somerset decided to keep about half of the teachers and staff members already working in Jefferson County and let go of the rest, attracting new employees by hiking salaries to among the highest in the state. Somerset Jefferson advertised a starting teacher salary of almost $44,000 in 2017-18, which was $3,000 more than the beginning pay for a teacher in Miami-Dade County Public Schools the same year, despite the much higher cost of living in South Florida.

Oliver and other Somerset leaders said the high-performing charter school network’s approach is adapting to students’ individual needs in real time using data and collaboration. Teams of educators from other charter schools also affiliated with the for-profit company Academica visited Jefferson to observe classrooms and offer feedback. Teachers received training in a curriculum that emphasizes leadership, based on the Steven R. Covey book, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People."

Somerset also hired more than a dozen security guards.

The schools got a new paint job, a refinished gym floor, a culinary lab to train students for careers in food service. Somerset provided uniforms and new band instruments for the students.

A $2 million federal startup grant for charter schools and $2 million in loans helped make all that happen.

Learn more about how the charter district was funded. »

The turnaround attempt presented an enormous professional challenge for Oliver. But the ramifications for his career seemed small compared to what else was at stake.

"Everybody's watching," Oliver said. "I mean, everybody tells me, everybody’s watching.

"Is it a big deal if this school is successful? Absolutely. It affects charter schools all across the state of Florida, and I'm aware of that," he said. "This school being the first takeover of a public school district, … it makes sense to me why people would want to see if this — and I've heard it called an ‘experiment’ — if this experiment works.

"And it has to," he said. "I mean, regardless of public, charter, or any of that — it has to work. Because it has to be about our kids here. This is their future.

"What happens to these kids if I fail?"

Principal Cory Oliver visits with second graders
Principal Cory Oliver visits with second graders at Somerset Academy Jefferson County in January 2018.
© By Jessica Bakeman/WLRN

Twelve minutes of chaos

As Principal Cory Oliver said, "everybody’s watching." Some of those careful observers were state legislators.

A couple of months into the first school year at Somerset Academy Jefferson County, lawmakers were interested in how the experiment was going. They lined up administrators, parents and students at legislative committee meetings in October 2017.

"Okay, sir, are you ready?" then-Rep. Michael Bileca, a Miami Republican, asked a Somerset Jefferson student who was preparing to address the House education committee.

"Yes, sir. Greetings," said Christian Steen, then a senior at the new charter high school and a battalion commander in the school’s Junior ROTC, a military training program.

"Before Somerset came, you know, I used to ask myself: Is it time for me to move on from Jefferson, knowing that’s where my whole family graduated? … Was it time for me to go to another county, or is it time for me to go homeschool?"

Steen told lawmakers he saw immediate changes in the new charter schools: Oliver knew how to connect with the students. There were more opportunities, like culinary arts and drama club.

"This year, it’s still the same knuckleheads," he said, laughing with the committee members, "but other than that, everybody else is on point. They’re focused.

"So I’m just thankful that we have Somerset," he said.

Still, Oliver was expecting academic setbacks.

"It’s bleak," the principal told lawmakers during another meeting that October. "There’s a lot we have to do for our children to be caught up to where they need to be."

The schools’ culture, though, "shocked" him. He said when students have a conflict, they resolve it by fighting.

"You have to understand, … the bulk of their life has been in a failing school system," Oliver said during an interview in his office. "There was a lot of teachers moving in and out of the district. There wasn't any consistency…. That's hard on kids.

"It's not the kids. It's the choices," he said. "It's the behaviors that we've got to work on."

In November 2017, not even three months into Jefferson County’s first school year as privately run charter schools, the fighting culture led to a major setback that threatened to overshadow the progress made by the students.

A chaotic, violent brawl broke out on campus, resulting in lasting consequences for a few students who were involved. Some in the community, though, saw it as a necessary cleansing agent for a school system that had long suffered from disciplinary interruptions.

It was 8:30 a.m. on Nov. 2, 2017, around breakfast time for the older students, and the football team was lined up across an outdoor walkway by the cafeteria. A player shoved another student, and that first fight multiplied into more.

"We were outnumbered," said Alexia Bythewood, a security guard whose three children were enrolled in the elementary school then. "By the time we got one altercation broken up, one started right behind.

"I think the ones who started the fight were pretty much troublemakers, and they needed to be eliminated," she said.

For about 12 minutes, more than a dozen kids fought as hundreds of their peers looked on screaming, according to police reports as well as an audio recording and redacted still images of the fight from the school resource officer’s body camera, all obtained by WLRN through public records requests.

It took nine police officers to break up the fight and two vans to transport the 15 students who got arrested to the juvenile detention center. The students were charged with disrupting a school function, a misdemeanor. Most of them eventually had the charges dismissed or were offered probation.

"At the end of the day, we're talking about a fight at the school," said Jefferson County’s assistant state attorney, Andrew Deneen. "This isn't a particularly heinous crime."

Oliver was not on campus when the fight happened. He had left town two nights before for a charter school conference in Daytona Beach. When the fight began, his wife, who is also a Somerset Jefferson administrator, called him, and he drove back.

Sgt. Dan Williams, an investigator with the Jefferson County sheriff's office, interviewed him the day after.

"You starting to hate the school yet?" Williams asked, laughing, according to a recording of the conversation obtained by WLRN.

"No," Oliver said firmly. "I love these kids. These kids can do it."

"More power to you, man," Williams said.

Sighing, Oliver lamented: "Man, we had gone three or four weeks without a single high school fight. And then — to blow up this bad, after four weeks of nothing? That kicks you right in the gut, you know?"

"And it looks bad," Williams said. "For the people who are against this, it looks bad."

Oliver agreed with a soft, "yeah."

"So I hate it for you, because I know that's obviously going to be an obstacle down the road," Williams said.

The sergeant suggested some of the students involved in the fight who had been in trouble before shouldn’t be allowed back. Williams, who is white, listed a few of the black students who got in trouble by name and added this: "You can give them all the chances you want, but … good luck. … And I ain’t gonna say they’re a gang, but if they were smart enough to make one, they probably would."

"Yeah," Oliver replied.

After a moment, the principal added: "But this is it. I mean, for them."

That turned out to be true. Some students never made it back to school after the fight.

Principal Cory Oliver visits with second graders
Somerset Academy Jefferson County football coach Leroy Smith, right, in a redacted image of a fight that took place on Nov. 2, 2017, taken from the school resource officer's body camera.
Received from the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office through a public records request

The football coach’s ‘goon squad’?

It was hard to get a clear answer from educators, parents and students on what exactly the fight was about. There was tension on the football team between local players and a group of new kids who had transferred from nearby Gadsden County to follow Leroy Smith, their popular coach. According to the police investigation, there was also animosity between some of the football players and other middle and high school kids who weren’t on the team.

Dan Williams, the sergeant with the Jefferson County sheriff's office who was investigating the fight, told Principal Cory Oliver and other educators he suspected the coach of "antagoniz[ing]" the conflict.

"A lot of the incidents that are happening look to me like he's kind of manipulating the football team into looking like his goon squad basically," Williams told Oliver during an interview on Nov. 3, 2017, according to a recording of the conversation obtained by WLRN.

Terry Walker, the athletic director, seemed surprised and disappointed when Williams laid out the evidence against the coach.

"This is what I'm being told: the coach is out there showing [players] how to fight at practice a couple days ago," the sergeant told Walker.

"Wow," Walker said.

"They said he was out there showing them moves that his boxing coach had showed him. So, were you there for any of that?" Williams asked.

"No, because I wouldn't have supported that," Walker said. "That's not what we hired him for.

"He has more power over those players than any coach … that I've seen," Walker said. "That's more against him than for him."

In an interview with Smith, Williams elaborated on what the football players told him: "Some of them were saying you were showing them how to move and to go for the stomach and go for the head."

Williams also heard from players that Smith, who is black, warned them against being "pussy ass [n-words]," although the police investigator received different information about the context of the comment.

Smith told Williams that both allegations were true — that he showed off boxing moves to players at practice and told them if they let their teammates fight and didn’t intervene, they would be "pussy ass [n-words]." He argued he was trying to diffuse a potential fight, not exacerbate it.

The fight wasn’t the only time Smith faced allegations of inappropriate behavior. He was accused of interrupting classes, assaulting a school staff member and trying to use his players to intimidate the employee. In the police records for that investigation, the employee, who is also black, stated that Smith called him a "pussy ass [n-word]."

More recently, Smith was formally reprimanded by the principal for having a profane public "outburst" over his salary, according to Smith’s personnel file, obtained by WLRN through a public records request. Records show Smith got a raise from $65,000 to $73,000 in February of this year.

After the fight in November 2017, the sheriff’s office submitted a probable cause affidavit to arrest Smith on charges of contributing to the delinquency of minors. The police also moved to arrest him for the alleged assault against the school staff member. The state attorney’s office decided there wasn’t enough evidence of criminal intent in either case.

In an interview with WLRN earlier this year, Smith denied the allegations that he started or exacerbated the fight. There was evidence that he had warned the vice principal the night before that a fight might be brewing, and he also told Walker, the athletic director, minutes before. He argued that proved his innocence.

Smith said the police tried to use him as a scapegoat.

"You’ve got to have a guy to point the finger at," he said. "If I started that fight, I would have walked away. Because, one thing about it: My name is bigger than the job."

Somerset administrators were aware of the police agency’s suspicions about Smith. However, neither his alleged role in the fight nor the staff member’s accusations of assault, which both occurred in the fall of 2017, were mentioned in Smith’s personnel file. A spokeswoman for Somerset would not comment on whether he was disciplined in either situation. He continued in his job for the remainder of that school year and another one.

This summer, when WLRN asked for comment on the myriad allegations against the coach, a Somerset spokeswoman said she could not confirm whether he would continue to be employed for the 2019-20 school year. Two days later, the charter school network fired him. In a statement released to media, the principal said, "We cannot comment on any specifics."

Smith grew up in Gadsden County, another rural North Florida community. He had twins before he graduated high school. Despite those challenges, he said he beat the odds: He went to Florida State University on a football scholarship and then played for the Chicago Bears. He came back to teach social studies and coach football in his hometown of Quincy, at a school he had attended. He started a nonprofit organization, through which he mentors students and takes them on college tours.

In the spring of 2017, when it became clear that the district was headed for a charter-school takeover, people in the community said there were two things they weren’t willing to give up: the JROTC program and their beloved football team. Hiring Smith was one of the last things the Jefferson County school board did before losing power over the district.

Walker, the athletic director, introduced Smith to parents during a school board meeting in March of that year, the same meeting when board members voted to award Somerset the charter contract.

"I coach with three things: discipline, love and heart," Smith told the crowd then.

"Discipline to do what you're supposed to do when your boss is around or not. We call that character," he said.

"Love: love for yourself, love for God, and love for others," he said. "And heart: the heart of a champion, whether things are going good or going bad.

"I think, with those things, everybody in here can succeed," he said.

Under Smith, the Jefferson County Tigers did succeed on the football field.

In 2018, the once-champion team won its first playoff game in seven years.

Coach Leroy Smith
Then-head coach of Somerset Academy Jefferson County's football team, Leroy Smith, right, appears at a state Board of Education meeting at the Capitol in Tallahassee in March. Some of his players joined him, including then-senior Josh Aiken, left.
© Cat Gloria/WLRN

The fallout

Fights were not new for Jefferson County. Before the charter-school takeover, the traditional public school district grappled with what community members called "extreme discipline problems." Students were often suspended for up to 10 days. Difficult disciplinary cases were sent to an alternative school called Turning Point, located on a separate campus.

When Somerset took over the district’s schools in the fall of 2017, administrators closed Turning Point. They wanted to give the students enrolled there a "fresh start," one leader said.

In the aftermath of the fight that November, Somerset administrators deployed a new "alternative to expulsion" program: 45 days enrolled in virtual school at home with laptops and internet access provided by the charter schools. At least 11 students received the punishment after the fight, according to the principal.

De’Aundre Parker was 18 when he got arrested during the brawl and was assigned the alternative punishment. His adoptive father, Michael Huggins, said a teacher came to his apartment once to show De’Aundre how to take the classes. Huggins described the school’s action as an indefinite suspension.

"I didn't understand it. … It was just unheard of," Huggins said. "How do you give somebody a computer and just tell them, ‘This is what you need to do,’ and that's it?"

De’Aundre said he was abused and neglected by family members when he was growing up in Monticello and then ended up in foster care as a teenager. Huggins, his older friend and mentor, agreed to take him in 2016.

Even though De’Aundre was 18, some of his classes at Somerset Jefferson were freshman- and sophomore-level, because he had been held back in school. He was medicated for a learning disability as a child but chose to stop taking the drugs when he got older. He said they took away his appetite.

Although De’Aundre struggled in school, Huggins was determined to help him graduate. As a former foster child, De’Aundre could have received a full-tuition scholarship at a public college or university in Florida.

Huggins said, eventually, De’Aundre got discouraged with the at-home program.

"When he got kicked out of school, it was like he was forced to be an adult fast," Huggins said. "He didn't care anymore."

Michael Huggins
Michael Huggins said he adopted De'Aundre Parker, a former Somerset Academy Jefferson County student who was assigned to a 45-day "alternative to expulsion" program after a fight on campus in Nov. 2017.
© By Jessica Bakeman/WLRN

During that first year of the charter-school takeover, 2017-18, Somerset Jefferson’s student/parent handbook and discipline matrix — both documents that outline consequences for students’ behavior — made no mention of a 45-day "alternative to expulsion." According to an email included in nearly 800 pages of internal Somerset communications obtained by WLRN through a public records request, Principal Cory Oliver considered the discipline matrix to be "fluid."

However, the 45-day alternative was outlined in the student/parent handbook for the next school year, and that 2018-19 handbook offers additional insights into the expectations for students who participate.

"Upon completion of the 45 days, and completion of no less than 4 half credit courses that count towards graduation, … the Principal will determine if the student may return to [school], or will be recommended for expulsion," according to page 14 of the handbook.

"If a student is not actively taking advantage of the alternative to expulsion program or is subject to further disciplinary action while in the program, the Principal may recommend the student for expulsion prior to the completion of the alternative to expulsion program," the document said.

Charter school administrators can recommend a student for expulsion, but only the district’s elected school board has the authority to make the final decision.

Oliver explained the approach as a second chance for students who had been in trouble consistently and would have been expelled otherwise. He said they squandered the opportunities.

"I provided laptops for these kids. I put these kids in programs. And they did none of the work," he said. "So you have to understand that mindset: ‘It's never my fault. It's always somebody else's problem.’"

He said the 2018 mass shooting by a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland demonstrates the importance of ensuring violent students are not allowed in schools where they could hurt other kids.

"Children need to think of school as a sanctuary for academics, as a place where they can be loved and where they can learn," he said. "And when other kids make that impossible, where's the real ethical problem at? Letting this continue to happen over and over and over again? Or are we going to do something about it?"

It doesn’t appear that the virtual-school alternative was a one-time punishment used only for the extreme situation of the November 2017 fight, based on the internal emails obtained by WLRN.

In a message sent Feb. 25, 2018, Oliver provided his top administrators a list of students who "have either gone above the number of referrals for the 45 day program, or are right on the cusp.

"These students and a handful of others are most certainly destroying the sanctity of our learning environments in the middle school," Oliver wrote. "They are repeat offenders."

For those "repeat offenders," the principal created an in-school suspension program that was isolated from the rest of the student body.

"No movement within the rest of the school. They will receive breaks and lunches separate from all other students. If they need to use the restroom, security will escort to restroom and back," Oliver wrote.

"At least one student will try us the first week, … and we will have to move them out to show we are serious," Oliver wrote. "Hopefully, that will be the only time this has to happen. If a student receives a referral, walks out of the class, gets in any trouble on breaks, lunch, or in the restroom, then students will be moved into the 45-day alternative program…. The goal is to keep them with us and give them the necessary skills to survive."

On March 19, 2018, Oliver made the punishment a verb, writing that some students "should be 45 dayed."

An attorney hired by Somerset Jefferson who previously worked as general counsel for the Florida Department of Education weighed in: "Let’s talk about 45 day involuntary, probably needs to be voluntary or we move for expulsion letter," Daniel Woodring wrote later that day.

A spokeswoman for Somerset wrote in an email that parents and students choose the alternative program. Collette Papa, who is general counsel for Academica and responded to questions on behalf of Somerset, wrote that the program "offers positive alternatives to expulsion and assists in dropout prevention." She did not respond to requests for evidence demonstrating the program’s effectiveness, such as course completion rates for students enrolled in the virtual education program.

Little data exists regarding the online learning success of students asked to leave Florida public campuses.

The state’s online public education program, Florida Virtual School, has served a small number of students who have been expelled from traditional public schools in recent years. In each of the last four school years, anywhere from 10 to 25 students who self-reported that they were expelled from other districts enrolled in Florida Virtual School courses, according to a spokeswoman. The students accounted for less than a half-percent of the district’s overall enrollment in each year.

Depending on the year, the students completed and passed between 80 and 92 percent of the courses in which they enrolled.

Another leader of a charter school network in Florida argued that not receiving classroom instruction for 45 days — a quarter of the school year — could be catastrophic for vulnerable students. Jesse Jackson is the superintendent of the Lake Wales charter network in Polk County, which was initially asked to consider taking over the Jefferson County district but opted not to apply.

"Think about if you have children that are academically distressed," Jackson said. "If they miss one, two, three, four days out of school — that's a hardship.

"If you're talking about 45 days out of school," he said, "that's failure."

Family Photo
Somerset Academy Jefferson County students Anthony and Deshawn pose with their mother, Renea, at the school. WLRN is not using their last names to protect the family's privacy.
© By Jessica Bakeman/WLRN

A tale of two brothers: How one Somerset Jefferson family’s life changed

A pair of brothers was among the 15 students arrested during the on-campus fight in November 2017. For both of them, the incident was a turning point. After, their futures look different.

The brothers, Kalvontay and Anthony, were 16 and 14, respectively, when they were arrested during the fight. Because they were minors, WLRN is not going to use their last names, or their mother’s, to protect the family’s privacy.

Kalvontay said he started fighting to protect his younger brother, Anthony. That was confirmed by the Jefferson County sheriff’s office investigator during an interview obtained by WLRN.

"One of the football players hit my brother, and he was only 14 years old, and the dude was, like, 17, 18," Kalvontay said, "so I had to help my brother."

Somerset assigned Kalvontay to 45 days of virtual school at home.

"I was very pissed," his mother, Renea, said. "I came and talked to Mr. Oliver about that, and he told me, if he did so much work, he would get him back in school."

Kalvontay didn’t make it back, though.

It was different for his little brother, Anthony. The fight convinced him to change his life.

"It felt bad getting arrested," Anthony said. "I felt like I let my mama down, because she ain’t raise me like that. I was just, like, angry at the time."

Anthony went to court and got probation. He was suspended from school for 10 days, according to him and his mom. (Somerset would not comment about students’ discipline records, citing federal privacy laws.)

"I don't want to ever have to go through that no more," he said.

After, he joined the football team and started dreaming about playing the sport in college. The new Somerset charter school changed the way Anthony felt about himself and his peers.

"Somerset just gave me a chance. I used to be a bad student. They seen good in me, so they gave me chances," he said.

"I feel like now they see that we're not really the dumb kids that everybody thought we was," he said.

Renea, Anthony’s mom, said she’s proud of her son’s transformation and wants to see him make it to college.

"He'll be my first that finished school and go beyond to do what he needs to do," she said.

Renea said she dropped out of high school because she got pregnant with her first child, and then she spent some time in jail when her children were young.

"I want to see my boys just make it, be successful, to have way more than I ever had in life," she said. "That's all I want for my kids."

‘Jail, jail, jail’: Life after an ‘alternative to expulsion’

Somerset Jefferson students De’Aundre and Kalvontay never went back to their high school after they were assigned to the 45-day alternative program.

The students and their families said they wanted to return, but Somerset administrators would not let them.

"After the 45 days, when I was supposed to come back to school, they told me I couldn’t come back. Like, I could never come back," De’Aundre said. "I felt like it was wrong."

Michael Huggins, De’Aundre’s adoptive father, said: "I was trying to figure out, … are y'all going to accept him to come back to school, or he's kicked out? They didn't never say."

A spokeswoman for Somerset said administrators could not comment on the students’ and families’ claims because of federal laws that protect students’ privacy.

De’Aundre and Kalvontay were not officially expelled. There were no expulsions during the 2017-18 school year, according to both Jefferson County’s superintendent and the charter schools’ principal.

Charter schools don’t have the authority to expel students. They can recommend students for expulsion, but only elected school boards can make the final decision to deprive students of their constitutional right to a public education. First, students are supposed to get an opportunity for a hearing. That’s in state law, and it’s outlined in Somerset’s charter contract with the Jefferson County School board.

In emails obtained by WLRN, Somerset administrators said the school board was standing in the way of expelling students. The charter school leaders sent a list of complaints about the school board and superintendent to the state Department of Education in November 2017, including: "Board Member [Sandra] Saunders stated she will be absent from board meeting if expulsion of students is on the agenda."

Saunders declined multiple requests for interviews and did not reply to a text message asking for her response to Somerset’s accusation.

In March 2018, De’Aundre and Kalvontay were arrested again.

They are accused of an armed robbery in nearby Tallahassee, taking marijuana, electronics and a small brown dog. There was a third man who was allegedly with them. According to police reports, the man shot one bullet into the dark apartment and hit two women, who both survived. (The victims declined to comment for this story.)

Because De’Aundre and Kalvontay were allegedly with the accused shooter, they are facing charges not only for the alleged armed robbery but also for attempted murder. They both pled not guilty and are awaiting trial, which is scheduled for November.

Kalvontay, who has maintained his innocence, turned 18 behind bars.

"I've been locked up for over a year, so all I know right now is jail, jail, jail," he said during a phone interview from the Leon County Jail. "This really is a traumatizing experience to go through right here."

He said he feels like he’s been robbed of his childhood.

"I just don't get to live a regular kid's life," he said. "It just took me away from my family and all the fun I could have and what I could be doing productive out there in life.

"But … if get out, I know I’m going to further my career, and I'm going to go back to school and get my high school diploma, and just try to do a lot better," he said.

De’Aundre Parker is 20 now.

He wrote in a letter from jail: "I feel like Somerset is a good school but they were wrong for kicking me out. Now I’m probably facing time in prison.

"That’s not the school’s fault," he wrote. "But really if I were to be in school I would not be in this situation that I’m in now.

"I really wanted to finish school there. I’m a very smart student but I do understand that sometimes I may need help," he wrote. "I wanna go to college and become something with myself. I don’t wanna be sitting in this place losing a lot of the things that I have gain[ed]."

‘I’m tired of the excuses’: New charter schools struggle with similar challenges

Under the management of Somerset Academy, Jefferson County’s public schools earned their first passing grades in nearly a decade. The district’s graduation rate for 2017-18 was 73 percent, nearly 20 percentage points higher than the year before.

That school year, Jefferson County students’ scores on state exams improved dramatically. Still, more than half of students failed the English and math tests, and their performance was below state averages. The schools — now organized as one elementary, one middle and one high school — all earned Cs. The high school nearly got a B.

"It was big," Principal Cory Oliver said. "The community immediately got behind us and they were like, ‘OK, this is working. Let's make this happen. Let's keep going.’"

School grades are based both on students’ absolute performance and their improvement on state tests, among other indicators, like high school graduation rates. Because Jefferson County’s test scores were so low before, students’ improvement helped bring up the charter schools’ grades in that first year.

"Year two is going to be significantly more difficult," Oliver said during an interview in his office in the fall of 2018, a couple of months into the schools’ second year. "We will not go backwards. We will not…. We're going to do everything, whatever it takes, to not do that. I just can't let it happen."

Impressive as they were, the school grades didn’t tell the whole story. Enrollment at Somerset Jefferson hasn’t grown as quickly as administrators hoped it would. The charter schools have been spending millions of extra dollars in state and federal funding and from loans they took out, and administrators have warned that money isn’t sustainable. Discipline problems have continued. Somerset recommended six students for expulsion in 2018-19, and the school board agreed to kick out four of them.

The ongoing difficulties weighed on Oliver.

"I guess I'm frustrated now, [in a way] that I wasn't before," Oliver said. "I just want my kids to be successful. I'm tired of the excuses."

Despite the challenges they’ve faced, Somerset administrators see the takeover as a triumph.

"If charter schools are going to work — and we say and we believe they're going to work — this was the environment where the greatest challenge, maybe in the country, was at the time," said Doug Rodriguez, a veteran educator who has worked as a consultant for Somerset overseeing the transition in Jefferson County. "And the results have been amazing."

Rodriguez said Somerset would consider trying to replicate its work in Jefferson County elsewhere, but not until the Jefferson district brings its C rating up to an A.

"Before we jump into another one, we want to make this one perfect," he said.

State lawmakers are satisfied with Somerset’s progress, though. During a meeting of the House education committee this February, chair Jennifer Sullivan, a central Florida Republican, declared Somerset’s work in Jefferson County "a success story."

That perceived success, in part, is what drove state leaders in May to enact a new law expanding a policy called "schools of hope." The program offers extra funding to attract charter schools into neighborhoods like Monticello, where traditional public schools have failed for years.

Somerset’s schools in Jefferson County became the first "schools of hope." The second opened in August in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood, and more are coming soon to the Tampa Bay area and Jacksonville.

This summer, Somerset Jefferson was dealt a blow. The school grades were released for 2018-19, and while the middle and high schools maintained their Cs, the elementary school dropped back to a D.

Somerset leaders argue the decrease wasn’t significant, because the school just missed a C rating under the state’s rubric. But Oliver, the principal, told a local newspaper: "It’s hard when you see that grade drop with all the effort and money and time and energy that has been put in."

There are three more years left for the charter schools in Jefferson to prove themselves before their contract expires. Somerset administrators said the charter network will try to stay after 2022.

While the decision regarding whether to extend the charter technically sits with the school board, the current contract requires Jefferson’s local elected officials to obtain written permission from the state education commissioner before opting against renewal, which is atypical.

"We're going to make it as difficult a decision as possible," Rodriguez said, "because we're going to continue to achieve for students there."

If the school board votes against keeping the charter schools, he said, "it won't be … because Somerset wasn't successful in investing in the lives of those children."

Quiz at Somerset Academy
An algebra class at Somerset Academy Jefferson County's middle/high school building in January 2018.
© By Jessica Bakeman/WLRN