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:
Where are Somerset schools?: Somerset Academy, Inc., operates 62 schools in the state, mostly in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Other Florida campuses are located in Palm Beach, St. Lucie, Duval and Jefferson counties and the Florida Keys.
Somerset has rapidly expanded into other states, as well. The network has nine schools in Nevada, four in Texas and two in Arizona. There’s also a school in the Canary Islands, Spain. Two schools in Washington D.C. were recently in danger of closing when the national nonprofit charter operator KIPP stepped in to take over for the 2019-20 school year.
Who is in charge?: Somerset Academy, Inc., is a private nonprofit organization with an independent governing board. The board oversees the network’s schools, holds regular public meetings and is subject to sunshine laws. But unlike a traditional county school board, the members are not elected by voters.
Charter schools receive some oversight from the elected school board members and superintendents in the districts where they are located. These relationships are spelled out through contracts called charters. The charters are in effect for limited periods of time and can be renewed periodically, such as every five years, as long as the schools fulfill the responsibilities and meet the goals outlined in the document.
The “Academica umbrella”: Somerset is one of several charter-school networks that contract with the Miami-based for-profit corporation Academica for a broad array of administrative services, including recruiting staff and developing curriculum and tests. The others under the “Academica umbrella,” according to a presentation made by Somerset leaders at a legislative committee meeting in 2017, are Pinecrest Academy, Doral Academy and Mater Academy.
Leaders of Academica-affiliated charter schools characterize the for-profit company as a third-party vendor with little power. The relationship appears much closer than that, though. The owners of Academica founded the major charter networks that contract with their company, state records show. Further, Academica employees have been involved in the day-to-day operations of Somerset Academy Jefferson County, according to nearly 800 pages of internal emails obtained by WLRN through public records requests.
Academica is a controversial figure in Florida education, since critics argue the company and others like it are profiting off of taxpayers. Academica is also a powerful force in Florida education policy, with close links to several current and former state lawmakers who have written laws and budgets that benefit charter schools.
How are Somerset schools doing?
Here are the school grades of Somerset charter schools in Florida over time: