Hamilton County community helps save school district

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By: Emma Wheeler | WCTV Eyewitness News
September 13, 2018

HAMILTON COUNTY, Fla. (WCTV) -- It takes a village to raise a child, and in Hamilton County, that's proving to be true.

Whether it's a high school football game or a fight song you'll never forget, school pride is more than just seen, it's felt. The North Florida community is proving, it's worth fighting for.

Hamilton County is a community centered around a school. But, just one year ago, its future was in jeopardy.

"We were even called failure factories, and that's tough," said Hamilton County Superintendent Rex Mitchell.

After struggling for years and failing to meet state standards, the school was placed in the state's turn around program. If test scores did not improve, 2017 would be the high school's last year. The elementary school would follow just one year later.

"If you're not coming to school with the pit of your stomach in a knot, then you're probably not thinking the same way I am," Mitchell said.

The district needed student test scores to climb five percent in just one year. If not, the state would take control and turn the school into a charter.

On top of that, the district was in the midst of financial crisis, facing a $1.3 million deficit. Depleting the district's fund balance, it would still be $300,000 in the red.

"We can complain about these things, or we can make an effort to save our schools," Mitchell said.

So, they hit the books.

"If we're not figuring out why you're not reading the way you should, why math's not important, then you're going to continue to have those problems," Mitchell said. "We try to get to the root of the problem, and we think that was there wasn't a lot of hope about what would a high school diploma do for you here."

Support began pouring in from across the county. Nearby districts started sharing test materials for students. Northeast Florida Educational Consortium offered support. Dozens of church groups, parents, tutors and mentors chipped in to help the students.

One of those organizations is Wright Connections Mentoring Program. Founder Sequonda Wright pushes kids to set goals.

Wright is a Hamilton County alumna, and has seen the same struggles still facing the district.

"I always held onto my dreams, and that's why I know it's important to dream, because that dream will be there," Wright said. "It will be your cheerleader when no one else is."

Wright said once these kids started dreaming, they started achieving.

"When you have students running to you, not hiding their report cards but running to you to show you, it let me know that they value the work they did at school," Wright said.

The grades began to follow.

"It came to fruition," Mitchell said. "Which is astronomical in one school year."

In just one year, the district jumped not five, but 11 percent, receiving a high 'C' grade. The number of students with a perfect 5 test score doubled.

The district lost 35 positions, mostly staff members that were not directly related to the classroom. The rest of the staff picked up what they call ODAS, or other duties as assigned. Because of this, the district was able to get out of the financial red.

Their school was saved.

"We want our community to continue to exist. We want our district to continue to exist," Mitchell said. "The educational system is one big piece."

Hamilton County Schools said the work is not done. The next step is to get a B.

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