BY SUPERINTENDENT JESSE JACKSON
More Than A Great Education System
By early 2000, the once great tradition of outstanding local schools for Lake Wales’ citizens had reached a point of decline. It was at that time when concerned citizens, with the support of the Lake Wales Area Chamber of Commerce education committee, decided to do something to reverse that trend. What emerged from their initiative was an accountability driven charter school systems that continues to make significant improvement in all areas of student achievement. Little did anyone know at the time that Lake Wales Charter Schools, the system of charter schools that resulted from the citizens’ initiative nearly ten years ago, would become one of the town’s largest employers. In fact, the determination shown by local citizens to improve the quality of public education initially had two objectives, to significantly improve local schools, and to ensure Lake Wales’ families would have no reason to send their children to schools outside this community. To say that Lake Wales Charter Schools profoundly exceeded everyone’s expectations is an understatement.
Since 2004, when five Lake Wales’ public schools were converted to public charter schools, and with the addition of Bok Academy and the International Baccalaureate program to Lake Wales High School, a significant reversal has taken place both in terms of quality and the participation in our local schools. Many families that had previously decided to seek other opportunities to educate their children outside Lake Wales have found favor in our excellent system of public charter schools. The Lake Wales Charter Schools system now provides educational services for approximately 4,000 students. While the majority of these students live in Lake Wales many come from surrounding towns including Lakeland, Bartow, Haines City, Winter Haven, Dundee, and Frostproof. The greater challenge for the LWCS system now is to continue its effort to pursue educational excellence while upholding the highest measures of academic and fiscal accountability.
Lake Wales Charter Schools pioneers such as Robin Gibson, Clint Horne, David Ullman and many others could feel quite satisfied when reflecting on the impact of their effort to improve local schools. However, when the details are analyzed it becomes quite clear that the LWCS system offers more than just a great education for this community. The mere shift of the schools’ management from Bartow to Lake Wales has profoundly impacted Lake Wales’ economy. Economists and others have long attempted to quantify the economic impact that education has on a community. These analyses often focus on educational outcomes such as high school dropout rates, graduation rates and college completion. Such information is used to make inference about their impact on income potential for perspective workers. While the primary aim of converting Lake Wales’ schools to charter schools was to influence the academic outcomes of our schools, the decision has yielded many residual benefits for our town as well.
As locally controlled schools, the principals are granted the authority to run Lake Wales Charter Schools as Chief Executive Officers. In this role, the principal has the autonomy and responsibility to make decisions regarding the most effective way to run his or her school, including decisions about financial matters. With each school’s annual budget ranging from approximately $2.5 million to nearly $6 million, managing the operations of our charter schools is a huge responsibility. The autonomy provides our principals the freedom to make decisions regarding their engagement with businesses when purchasing goods or services. Along with this freedom our principal leaders, Chief Financial Officer, myself and other members of our leadership team have the responsibility and are compelled to adhere to the strictest finance and accounting principles to ensure that our system’s finances are managed properly.
Our success as an effective school system has enabled us to evolve into a locally based multi-million dollar enterprise with an annual budget of more than $30 million. We do business with more than 109 Lake Wales area businesses. Lake Wales Charter Schools’ financial transactions with local businesses in 2012 amounted to more than $920,977.22 spent to purchase local goods or services. Additionally, Lake Wales Charter Schools conducted business with over 144 other vendors that are located within Polk County, including Polk County Schools, which resulted in more than $1.8 million spent in 2012 to purchase goods or services and over $6 million are held in local deposits as cash reserves for operation of the system. As a service industry (providing educational services to our families), we believe our greatest contribution to the Lake Wales economy are the nearly 480 full, and part-time jobs we provides to local citizens. As a resident of this great community I live and shop locally as do many of my fellow employees. Our collective action contributes millions more to the Lake Wales and local economy.
Michael Shuman’s book Going Local: Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age, identifies several important strategies for communities that are seeking to become financially sound and self-reliant. Among these strategies are nurturing locally owned businesses which use local resources sustainably, employing local workers at decent wages, and serving primarily local consumers. As a “community anchor,” Lake Wales Charter Schools is well positioned to support the transition of our great city toward self reliance. Lake Wales Charter Schools system will continue its effort as a vibrant academic and economic engine for this community; we will also need to continue our effort to bank locally and patronize local businesses. Such an effort will go a long way toward ensuring that Lake Wales Charter Schools is supporting the growth and development of the local economy as well as fostering self-reliance among community members.
Perhaps more important is the long term benefit. A 2012 report published by The Alliance For Excellent Education highlighted the imperative that exists between education equity and the American economy. The report noted that educational achievement benefits society and the economy in more ways than just tax revenues and consumer purchases. The report cites the work of noted economist Henry Levin of Columbia University and his colleagues, which documented the impact that improving educational outcomes and preventing dropouts could have on a community’s social cost such as health care, unemployment and incarceration. The Alliance report noted a separate study by Anthony Carnevale and his Georgetown University colleagues, which showed how improving educational outcomes for students from traditionally underserved and underrepresented groups is a major factor in breaking the cycle of poverty and disenfranchisement. While these studies provide evidence of many indirect economic benefits of a community’s education system, our Lake Wales community has realized many direct economic benefits for managing our school system locally.