To close out National School Choice Week, the Ed Fly Blog sat down with students and leaders at Eugene J. Butler Middle School, a public school in northeast Florida, to share how school choice is making a positive impact in Jacksonville’s urban core.
In Jacksonville, Fla., choice in education took on a new dimension when the formerly troubled Butler Middle School was transformed into the Leadership Schools at Eugene J. Butler, Duval County’s first public single-gender school.
Girls are on the first floor in the Young Women’s Leadership Academy, and boys are on the second floor in the Young Men’s Leadership Academy. Both academies have their own principals.
All of the changes ushered in by the leadership academies—professional uniforms with blazers, plaid accents and button down shirts; single-gender academic classes; using proven methods of instruction tailored to unique needs of girls and boys; an emphasis on leadership skills and development—has taken a once-struggling school and the community surrounding it to new heights.
Turner Riley, an eighth-grade student and vice president of the male student body, said making the choice to attend the YMLA is helping prepare him for the future.
“Having choice gives me the freedom to have the type of education I want,” Riley said. “I chose leadership because I want to be a better leader and example in my community.”
As the class vice president, he can attest to the impact the school has had on his leadership skills.
“Before, I wouldn’t have been comfortable interviewing like this,” he said, smiling. “Coming here has built my confidence, and I see the difference it’s making in me and in my classmates.”
Riley said he had friends who made bad grades and were disrespectful. Now they are making better grades, staying out of trouble and setting big goals for their futures.
When his mom heard about Butler transitioning to a single-gender model, she enrolled him.
“At first, I was skeptical of the single gender concept,” Tookes said. “Now I can’t thank our teachers and principals enough for making this place possible. I am more focused, my teachers push me to be my best, and now I realize I must take a serious business approach to my studies in order to be successful.”
While choice in education is great for students, David Errico, a fourth-year civics teacher at Butler believes choice benefits teachers too.
“When students are choosing your school, you have kids who want to be there. That makes it more enjoyable on both ends,” said Errico.
Errico added that empowering students to attend school outside of their own neighborhood broadens horizons.
“Children learn best through experience and exposure. When kids can drive to another part of town, see new places and meet new people, it opens up their world and allows them to imagine new possibilities,” he said.
“The same students who have never seen a beach, despite spending their whole lives within 20 miles of the coast, now have plans to enter STEM fields after visiting the Kennedy Space Center,” he said.
Tamara Williams, principal of the YWLA, is grateful her local school district embraces offering choices as a way to help students reach their full potential. She said the district was losing too many students to other options when it failed to offer choices. Now that is changing.
“Single gender education is not a new concept,” said Williams, “but single gender that’s affordable (no tuition), public and aligned to state standards is new, and that’s what makes us attractive.”
While the leadership academies have only been open since the fall of 2014, early indications are trending positive. Enrollment is growing and so is student achievement.
“One hundred percent of our Algebra I students passed their end-of-course assessments last year!” Williams beamed, noting that middle school girls traditionally struggle in math compared to their male peers.
However, the young men at Butler, who may excel at math but trail in reading compared to their female peers, are also seeing growth.
“Two-thirds of our male students passed their state civics end-of-course assessments,” Williams said, noting their pass rate outperformed 18 other Duval County middle schools. “That test relies heavily on reading comprehension skills.”
Female students feel the same way about their school. They added that away from boys, girls are generally unafraid to speak up in class and show what they know.
“My perspective about high school and college is completely turned around,” one girl said. “Before, I was worried about boys and superficial stuff. Now I have a plan.”
“We are grateful for school choice and especially for our school,” added another.
As for what’s next at the leadership academies, Truitte Moreland, principal of the YMLA, believes Butler will become a high-caliber model for instructional best practices other schools can replicate.
“What we’re doing isn’t just for a single gender environment. We believe the strategies we’ve implemented can boost student achievement and help teachers become more effective wherever they are.”
Moreland highlighted the YMLA’s “Classrooms Without Borders” initiative as another unique benefit offered to Butler students. Over the last year, students have visited more than 40 businesses, local parks, historical landmarks, colleges and universities, all intended to expose students to new professions and ideas for the future.
“Our students are seeing first-hand what kinds of opportunities and doors are opened for individuals who pursue higher education,” said Moreland. “Offering these students choices in their education has become a real game-changer for their futures.”
About the author
Kate Wallace @kstreetfla
Kate serves as the Director of Community Engagement (North Florida) for the Foundation for Florida's Future (AFloridaPromise). Prior to joining AFloridaPromise, Kate served as Legislative Coordinator for The Fiorentino Group, a Florida government affairs firm based in Jacksonville. Previously, Kate served as government affairs assistant for the Washington office of Triadvocates, an Arizona government relations firm, and as staff assistant for the Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., federal government relations office. As a college student, Kate interned for the White House in Vice President Dick Cheney’s Office of Domestic Policy and for former Florida Congressman Adam Putnam’s Capitol Hill office. A central Florida native, Kate graduated from University of Florida in 2007 with a B.S. in Public Relations. Contact Kate at Kate@aFloridaPromise.org.