Newest Charter High School Raises Bar for All Its Students

By Kormanik, Beth | The Florida Times Union, August 7, 2004 | Go to article overview

Newest Charter High School Raises Bar for All Its Students


Kormanik, Beth, The Florida Times Union


Byline: BETH KORMANIK, The Times-Union

Leslie Harris thinks every high school student should study The Scarlet Letter, the classic Nathaniel Hawthorne text sometimes reserved for advanced classes.

When Harris taught in Duval County schools, she noticed students received vastly different educations depending on whether they took honors, standard or remedial courses. When she tried to raise the standards for all students, Harris said her colleagues asked her "Why frustrate yourself trying to teach that?"

Now Harris and Chantel White, also a former Duval County teacher, are preparing for the first day of the county's newest charter school, Sojourner Truth High School of Humanities and Technology. The school's philosophy is to challenge all students with high expectations and rigorous courses.

"If you put an expectation, they will meet that expectation," Harris said. "If you have a low expectation, that's all they're going to do. But if you raise the bar, they're going to rise."

Students' incoming grade-point averages range from 0.8 to 3.4. Students who have failed ninth grade will sit beside gifted students. No one will leave for an honors class or step out a couple of periods a day for remedial courses.

Harris and White think the philosophy will work, even in the wake of recent charter school failures in Duval County. Three of the county's seven charter schools closed this summer because of low academic achievement or mismanagement. Those failures have given the charter movement a black eye and made recruiting tougher, Harris and White said, and the school extended its enrollment deadline to fill more desks.

The high school will educate only freshmen and sophomores this year and hopes to have an enrollment of 144 students, 100 in its general program and 44 in a dropout-prevention program for over-age students. Those students will attend classes for two hours a day and complete assignments on a computer. In the afternoons they go to jobs, apprenticeship programs or take elective courses in the main school.

Anyone can apply to the school, but students and parents must sign a contract spelling out their responsibilities. Students must maintain a minimum 2.0 grade point average and volunteer for 75 hours in the community, and parents must volunteer 30 hours at the school.

For now, the school's home is the first floor of a former BellSouth training center near University Boulevard and Interstate 95. The building resembles a school, with a floor plan that already included classrooms, separate boys' and girls' restrooms and space for a library and computer lab.

Those advantages took some of the headache away from opening the school, a dream for White and Harris since they met as first-year English teachers at Grand Park, an alternative school. …

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