In this charter school, Black families find understanding, trust

Third-grade teacher Ashley Clarke leads her class at Somerset Academy Eagle Campus in Jacksonville, Florida, which has as its focus academic excellence, leadership development, personal responsibility, community involvement and character.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Dorian Smith wanted a more academically challenging environment for his daughter, D’Yani, so after third grade he moved her from her struggling neighborhood school to a magnet school.

Because of staff churn, though, that school wasn’t working out either. So, in the middle of fifth grade, Smith turned to a college-prep charter school other parents had been telling him about for years.

Now D’Yani is a sixth grader at Somerset Academy Eagle Campus, and excelling.

Smith described the school as having “more of a home vibe.” It’s smaller, warmer, and more structured, he said. It sets high expectations for student performance and communication with parents. And it matters, he said, that in a school where 96% of the students are Black, so are nearly 70% of the teachers and administrators.

“It boils down to a little more understanding and a little more trust,” said Smith, a police officer. “Sometimes you need that familiar face to relate and connect a little better. That’s not to say there is a guarantee that because of that your child is going to prosper. But it helps. Once you ease the comfort level, it’s easier to learn.”

If “school choice is the Black choice,” as choice enthusiast Roland Martin likes to say, then nowhere is that truer than Florida. More than 100,000 Black students in Florida each year are now enrolled in choice options outside of public-school districts, with charter schools at the top of the list.

Last year, 65,481 Black students were enrolled in Florida charter schools, up 86% from a decade ago. And the evidence suggests they’re benefitting academically.

Somerset Academy is representative of those trend lines. The 10-year-old school in the gleaming, white-and-teal building is serviced by the charter school support organization Academica, and is actually two schools in one, an elementary and a middle. Before Covid hit and the state temporarily suspended school grades, the schools earned an A and a B, respectively.

Three-quarters of Somerset’s 600 students hail from working-class neighborhoods near the school, but there’s no doubt their parents had other options.

Duval County is home to nearly 40 charter schools, with more on the way. Many of them have well-earned reputations for ably serving students of color, including the independently operated Wayman Academy, the KIPP network, and IDEA schools, which will open in Jacksonville next year.

Duval also is home to more than 100 private schools that participate in the state’s school choice scholarship programs, including many tied to Black churches that have anchored their communities for generations. (Several of those scholarship programs are administered by Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that hosts this blog.)

Somerset Academy Eagle Campus principal Tunji Williams believes education is a two-way street, a partnership between school and family, with the parent as the child’s first teacher.

Somerset principal Tunji Williams said many Somerset students did not have good experiences at their prior schools. “That leaves a lot of parents with a bad taste in their mouth,” said Williams, a 27-year educator who has led both district and charter schools. “They heard, ‘Your kid is a behavior problem.’ Or ‘We can’t teach your kid.’ Or ‘Here she comes again.’ “

Margaret Lamkin can relate. The retired insurance benefits analyst is the grandmother of two former Somerset students and one current student. Her two oldest granddaughters were accused of being “disruptive” in their former schools, she said, but once at Somerset, the issues vanished.

Lamkin said her youngest grandchild, Lovely, a second grader, has been at Somerset since kindergarten because “we didn’t want to repeat ourselves.” Like Smith, she said having a staff that reflects the student body makes a difference.

“Young Black girls need to see strong Black women,” she said. “That confidence and that drive, they see that, and they strive to be that.”

Lamkin also said she is not surprised more Black families are turning to choice schools.

“They saw the same thing I did,” she said. Their prior schools “weren’t up to their standards.”

In Florida, more choice and better outcomes have gone hand in hand.

Before Florida began expanding education choice in the 1990s, Black students in the Sunshine State scored near the bottom relative to Black students nationally on the four, core reading and math tests that make up the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

A quarter century later, Black students in Florida are among the national leaders on three of the four tests, and right at the national average on the fourth.

Black students in charter schools are helping to set that pace.

NAEP data shows they’re outperforming like students in Florida district schools on all four core tests. In eighth grade reading, for example, 75% of low-income Black students in Florida charter schools are reading at the basic level or above, compared to 52% of low-income Black students in Florida district schools.

There are caveats. It’s possible charter schools are attracting more engaged parents. It’s also tough to pinpoint what factors led to academic gains in Florida, given Florida introduced a number of major policy changes at the same time it shifted school choice into high gear.

On the other hand, Florida has long had among the highest rates of low-income students in America, and among the lowest per-pupil spending. At the least, the experience of Black families in Florida shows the claims made by opponents of choice – that choice schools are hurting both the students enrolled in them, and the students who remain in traditional public schools – don’t make sense.

Somerset teacher Yolanda Davis has both of her children, Yjanell, 5, and Meckhi, 10, enrolled at the school.

It was more convenient for Meckhi to be in his neighborhood school, Davis said. But a couple months into third grade, she saw him struggling with reading and not getting the academic supports that she, as a teacher herself, knew were available. Meckhi got back on track at Somerset and now is reading above grade level.

“I never thought about choice until then,” Davis said. “But I knew it was a critical year for him, and I didn’t want to wait until he was failing.”

Like all parents, Davis said, Black parents want more rigor and responsiveness in their schools.

With more choice, more are getting what they want.