What is Somerset? A look at the South Florida charter school network leading Florida’s first school-district takeover

By Jessica Bakeman

Two career-changing moments in Ruth Jacoby’s life happened by chance.

In 1973, she and her husband, newly married, were on vacation in Miami, got lost and passed the Miami-Dade County school board building. On a whim, she walked in, applied for a teaching job and was hired on the spot. The couple went back home to New York City, packed up their stuff and moved south.

More than 20 years later, after Jacoby had raised a family and worked in both public and private schools in South Florida, her daughter saw an ad in the newspaper that said: “principal needed.” The job was leading a brand new charter school, at a time when all charter schools in Florida were new.

Fernando Zulueta had placed the ad. A real estate investor and developer, Zulueta wanted a school for the families living in a housing development he had built.

“He was putting up homes. He was not in education at that time,” Jacoby said. “And he decided, ‘Let's have the children walk to a neighborhood school.’”

In 1997, Jacoby became the founding principal of Somerset Neighborhood School, which started as two trailers in Miramar and has since grown into an international network of 78 charter schools and counting, with most campuses in South Florida. Charter schools are funded with public dollars but operated by private organizations, and they’re exempt from a lot of the laws and regulations that traditional public schools have to follow.

Two years later, Zulueta founded Academica, a for-profit corporation that brings in millions of dollars every year by providing administrative services to charter schools. He and his brother, Ignacio, eventually helped build an empire of charters that contract with the company, including not just Somerset but also the Pinecrest, Mater and Doral academy networks.

The Zuluetas didn’t give up their real estate ventures when they got into the for-profit education business. In fact, the two enterprises are related. A 2011 Miami Herald investigation found that some Academica schools rent space in buildings owned by the Zuluetas’ other companies.

Jacoby still works for Somerset. She’s now the network’s executive director of education, a job that often entails visiting schools to give feedback to principals and teachers.

Jacoby said she’s thrilled she made the move to charter schools two decades ago.

“It let me take everything that I thought was beneficial for students and … almost immediately put my thoughts into action,” Jacoby said. “If it didn't work, I was able to modify, which the charter school movement allows you to do.”

Jacoby and other Somerset leaders said what defines the network’s educational model is fluidity, the ability to adapt to students’ individual needs in real time using data and collaboration. They argue that’s much more difficult, even impossible, to do in traditional public schools, which they say are weighed down by bureaucracy. Like most charters, Somerset schools do not have unionized teachers or staff.

A nimble approach is what Somerset leaders believe will make the network’s unprecedented takeover of Jefferson County, a small school district in rural North Florida, a long-term success.

“It was like a spark that needed to be relit,” Jacoby said about Jefferson County’s long-struggling public schools before Somerset took over in the fall of 2017. “We're going to make it happen. That's been our mission, and it's our mission every day.”

Learn more about how Somerset Jefferson is doing. »

What is Somerset?

Here are some facts and figures about the charter school network: