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The Impact of a High Expectations Culture in Schools

• Kate Wallace

Earlier this month, my colleague Lauren and I visited Bok Academy, a charter middle school in Lake Wales, Florida, located on the pristine shores of Crooked Lake. As a native of nearby Bartow, I have fond memories of waterskiing there, seeking to cool off from the dreary central Florida heat.

But this time, I didn’t bring my skis. I went out with Bok Academy seventh graders to measure nitrate levels in the water, part of a project for their science class.

Able practitioners of the scientific method, the students carefully recorded their observations while answering questions from their teacher.

Bok Academy students test nitrate levelsI talked to them about the challenging academics at Bok Academy. The students—all of whom would have otherwise been zoned to attend a failing traditional public school—seemed to relish the challenge.

“I like the high expectations and the testing,” one student said.

“I like seeing how much progress I’ve made throughout the year and knowing how I measure up against what the FCAT wants me to know,” another added.

These students want to be challenged in a way that stretches their abilities and allows them to display their gained knowledge. Opponents of testing would have you believe otherwise.

As we walked through the school hallways, students acknowledged us politely before heading back to class. It made me wonder if my own manners were that superb in middle school.

Now, good manners don’t necessarily equate to good test scores. But they do reflect a culture of high expectations that are reflected in Bok Academy’s string of A grades from the state, dating back to its inception in 2008. This is despite challenging demographics — more than half of its students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch.

The school’s principal, Damien Moses, says you get such results by having a “whatever it takes” attitude. He and his staff wear multiple hats.

“We’ve had teachers double as their own janitors,” he chuckled. “But seriously, it’s about doing whatever it takes to ensure our kids succeed.”

Bok Academy was the sixth school to join the Lake Wales Charter Schools LEA (LWCS), which is comprised of former traditional public schools that have converted to charters.  Community leaders wanted to take more control after they felt the local school district consistently neglected Lake Wales-area schools. Since converting to charter schools, student achievement in Lake Wales has risen overall, but Superintendent Jesse Jackson says there’s still more climbing to do.

“Too many students from outside our system arrive to high school drastically behind, and by that time, it’s almost too late to catch students up academically,” Jackson said.

Expanding high-quality educational options is greatly needed in the earlier grades to prevent students from having to catch up in the first place.

Thanks to Principal Moses, Superintendent Jackson, and the gracious hosts at Bok Academy for hosting us. Lauren and I look forward to visiting again and seeing how much these motivated students will grow.

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