Lake Wales Charter Schools, a full K12 charter district, engages ESL population

Lake Wales Charter Schools, as the only local educational agency (LEA) in Florida, faces several challenges, including educating a large migrant population and high poverty rates. Serving over 4,000 students, Superintendent of Schools Jesse L. Jackson and his administration have worked to foster an internal culture of collaboration and communication to innovatively engage their ESL students and families.

Has Lake Wales Charter Schools’ distinction as a local educational agency changed the services it offers?

We have a full K12 charter school system that developed when parents and faculty banded together to convert the majority of failing schools in our local public school district into charters. When I came on board as superintendent in 2008, my first task was to encourage legislation in Florida to give us local control as a recognized LEA district. The distinction enabled us to receive all federal entitlement funds directly rather than through disbursements controlled by our local district. As an LEA with Title I designations, we qualified for several federal programs, including grants to provide resources and funding for economically disadvantaged children, migrant and homeless education programs, professional development, English-language learning and more. In switching to a charter system, Lake Wales Charter Schools was not looking to serve a select student population but rather pursued the option to retain more financial and administrative control.

What programs do you utilize to engage your ESL families and students?

Weekly leadership meetings are held to discuss schools, issues, budgets, food service, personnel and more. The frequency alone is a paradigm shift for decision-makers and provides a learning opportunity and immediate help for educators starting out. Building a culture of collaboration, engagement and communication internally with teachers and administration supports our work externally with families. It fosters a feeling of “we can do this” rather than “it can’t be done.”

In our central Florida location in the “citrus belt,” we see many migrant workers and their families. In our series of ESL family nights, we work to find solutions by involving people, such as immigration attorneys, who can address families’ issues. We offer a kindergarten support program to better prepare ESL students. In addition, our migrant coordinators can help with family conferences and other situations so language is not an isolating barrier for a solution. The charter system even has a summer academic support camp for Spanish-speaking students.

How has your counseling background inspired how you lead your district?

In my initial counseling work with adult and then juvenile ex-offenders, the element of hopelessness even with juvenile offenders led me to return to school to become a teacher to reach the kids earlier. In public schools, even students with difficult issues usually do not display that hopelessness. In my educational career path from teacher to principal to superintendent, my goal was and is to inspire hope within students and colleagues.

With over 75 percent of our kids in the free or reduced lunch programs, we know that life issues may be interfering with their learning. I am as concerned about helping kids as much as I am about helping them to learn. The mindset in our charter district is to try to change things to see kids through the long haul—to incorporate communication and prevention measures rather than treatment later on. We are looking to hire even more social workers to continue home visits because it does make a difference.