Dixon: The End or Beginning?

Rev. LuTimothy May always seems happy to talk about A.A. Dixon Charter School of Excellence. After a disastrous first year, he jumped in last summer to turn around the failing school.

“I was actually just at Dixon,” May said Monday morning. “We started the day camp today.”

The day camp caters to the same kids the charter school does: neighborhood kids—many of them from disadvantaged backgrounds—who would otherwise get bussed out of their community each day. May got involved because he believes it’s important that the children in the area have a school that serves them.

After a year of failing grades and racking up $100,000 in debt, Dixon had a steep hill to climb. It was nearly shut down, but Escambia County School District Superintendent Malcolm Thomas agreed last fall to give May the year to drop the debt and improve the grades.

After finishing up another school year, students at A.A. Dixon are now unsure if they will be returning in the fall. As it is now, that answer lies in the still-unknown FCAT grades

“The contract will expire if the school makes an F,” said Escambia County School Board Vice Chairman Jeff Bergosh on Monday.

Over the course of the school year, the team at Dixon was able to shed much of its debt. In December, the school realized a positive balance on its books for the first time.

“We headed into the black with such alarming speed that they can not say anything about our finances,” May said.

The charter was able to cut a chunk of its debt when corporate sponsors footed the bill for mechanical repairs on a couple of school busses. Although the charter still carries an estimated $30,000 of debt it inherited from its first year of operation, the school is also able to operate in the positive on a current monthly basis.

“None of them thought we could turn the finances around,” May said of district officials.

Bergosh described the financial turnaround as “fantastic,” but said he still expected the charter to be closed due to FCAT scores. The subject arose during a school board workshop last week.

“My sense of it was that there were three votes to enforce the contract,” Bergosh said. “—I don’t know what  Patty and Linda have in mind to do.”

While some board members expressed a will to close the charter if it received an F grade, others—Patty Hightower and Linda Moultrie—expressed contrary views. Moultrie said Monday that she plans to ask the board when it meets today to look at amending the current contract with Dixon.

“I am planning on asking the board to add it on the agenda,” she said, confident that some of her fellow board members will entertain the notion.

Moultrie said there were a couple of reasons she was suggesting altering the agreement with the charter, primarily because she didn’t think it made sense to hold the charter to the FCAT portion of the agreement because of changes at the state level.

“The whole FCAT has been changed since when we entered the agreement,” Moultrie said.

Bergosh called the state changes the “big unknown” and conceded the changes may serve to better the grade at some district schools.

“I know we’re getting a pass at several of our schools,” he said, adding that he felt the overall testing system was flawed.

Moultrie said aside from testing changes, the students at Dixon seem to have benefited from the school. She said such progress should secure the charter another year.

“They have made progress and I suspect if they continue under the current core leadership they have now they’ll make even more progress,” she said.

May reported that more than 65 percent of the students attending Dixon this year made learning gains. He noted that the charter had performed better than some of the district’s own schools.

“You want to hold the charter school to a standard that the district is not even holding themselves to,” May said.

Bergosh said that he would not be willing to support granting Dixon another year until he saw a financial audit and FCAT scores were released. The current contract with the charter ends on June 30, prior to the scores being known.

“For all intent and purposes,” Bergosh said of the gap on the calendar, “I think we’ll have a couple of days of uncertainty.”

The school board member said he was “not rooting against them” and would support keeping the charter open if FCAT grades were acceptable.

“It sounds like they’ve gotten their finances turned around,” Bergosh said. “If they’ve improved their grades, I’ll be right their supporting them.”

In between sweating FCAT grades and visiting Dixon’s day camp, May holds out hope the district will realize and reward the gains made thus far. He knows that’s probably asking for a lot.

“The superintendent never wanted this school to be in existence,” May said.