James Stephens International Academy — a school with a questionable reputation — has taken a complete 180 degree turn.
The elementary school went from an “F” grade to a “B” grade by Florida’s school grading guidelines during the 2016-2017 enrollment year — making it the greatest one-year turnaround in Lee County history.
According to Principal Ken Savage, the school had the second highest gain in the state of Florida that year.
When Ken started his job at James Stephens, the school was at the bottom of nearly 100 Lee County schools. Around 94 percent of kindergarteners were coming in below kindergarten readiness, the highest in the district.
The tremendous gain was due to Ken and his team. They started by implementing a longer school day, which allowed them to feed the students (who are all on a free lunch program) a breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack. Ken attributes the better learning capabilities of the students to being more well fed.
The school also implemented more fun activities as well. When Ken began working at the school, he brought eight new teachers in with him that he had worked with before to help implement the teaching changes.
This change was initiated due to Lee County School District’s 5-year enrollment plan — Vision 2020 . The strategic plan has four key parts:
Increase student achievement
Engage families and the community
Workforce – hire the highest quality teachers
Become a model of continuous improvement organization
Lee County ranked 35th out of 60 counties in terms of academic ranking, according to Denise Carlin, the Director of Strategic Planning & Community Engagement with the Lee School District. In one year they went from 35th to 30th.
“We know that some of our schools have greater challenges than others,” Denise said.
Graduation rates also went up to 70 percent last year, she said. Under Vision 2020, the goal is to have a 95 percent graduation rate by 2020.
“It lies in literacy,” Denise said. “When we have children that leave elementary literate, they go on to do great things in middle and high school.”
To help the schools with “F” and “D” grades, the district offers teachers willing to work at these schools an extra few thousand dollars.
James Stephens did not have the best reputation among students and parents since it opened in 2006 — however that reputation is changing due to the work of teachers, staff and Ken.
In fact, Ken was recognized by the state, and was recently named Florida’s Principal of the Year.
“That is a huge honor,” Ken said. “I recognize that that is something I never would’ve expected….to whom much is given, much is required, much is expected.”
But for Ken, this just means a bigger reach in terms of what he can do to help the kids.
And that change show in the school’s enrollment. Last year, the school had 350 students. This year, the enrollment was 420.
“Seven years of being one of the worst schools in Lee County, they earned that reputation. Now, we’ve had to really celebrate and own changing that,” he said. “They’re thrilled to be Mustangs at James Stephens.”