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March 24, 2019

A Sense of Possibility

Cynthia Barnett | 8/1/1999
As legislators debated Gov. Jeb Bush's new education plan this year, Gadsden County came to represent everything wrong with the state's public schools: High rates of illiteracy, delinquency, drop-outs and teen pregnancy. The worst reading scores in the state. The worst math scores in the state. Schools sure to fall into the "failing" category that would allow their students to qualify for state-paid vouchers.

But at the end of the school year, students at the dilapidated James A. Shanks High School in Quincy pulled off something that surprised even them: they scored well enough on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) to take their school off the list of those critically failing. And while county-wide scores remained low, overall, Gadsden was one of the five most-improved districts in the state.

"When the spotlight shined down on us, the kids took it as a challenge," says Reginald James, a lifelong resident who started teaching in the Gadsden County public schools 23 years ago and who leads a community group called Men of Action. The improved scores, James and others say, are just one of many developments spreading hope across Gadsden County like the branches of the huge live oaks that shade its back roads. "There is a real renewal of spirit going on here," James says.

The renewal can't come too soon: For decades, Gadsden County has languished in the grip of a plantation-era social and economic structure in which one class lives in some of the worst poverty in Florida and another in antebellum homes with white columns.

With a population that's almost 60% African-American, Gadsden is the only one of Florida's 67 counties with a black majority. Cotton, and later shade tobacco, brought African-Americans here, first as slaves, then laborers. By the time tobacco went bust in the late 1960s, many whites had made a fortune to pass on to heirs. (A few dozen families still own millions of dollars worth of Coca-Cola Co. stock that their parents and grandparents purchased in the 1920s. See "Coke's Legacy," page 67.) Many black families, on the other hand, were left without work or the means to move on. Many who labored in the tobacco fields and cigar factories had never learned to read and write.

Today, tomatoes and mushrooms have taken the place of tobacco, and the county's economy hasn't developed much beyond its agricultural base. Florida State Hospital, a sprawling mental institution on a hilltop in the center of Chattahoochee, is the largest employer in the county, with 2,300 jobs. The state jobs are stable, says hospital administrator Bob Williams, but not diverse enough. The kind of industry that could lift out of poverty the 30% of the county's residents who are poor routinely bypasses Gadsden. "It's a real Catch-22," says Quincy Mayor Don Chesser, conducting an impromptu tour of the town's run-down schools and Southern mansions from behind the wheel of his Ford F-150 pickup. "We need a broader economic base, but the industry that could provide it is looking for an educated workforce."

Education has lagged in part because when schools desegregated, the well-off white minority chose to send its children to private schools, eroding financial and social support for the public educational system. Williams, once a staunch supporter of the public schools, is the first to admit he's part of the problem: He says he pulled all three of his daughters out by seventh grade because they were not being challenged. "It was the hardest decision I've ever made," he says. "I gave up on something that I had believed in for a very long time, but it was obviously in my daughters' best interest."

Raising expectations
Today, around 85% of the children in public schools are African-American. There are plenty of cases of individual excellence: Lesley Anifowoshe graduated this year from Shanks at 17, having completed her first two years of college in the dual-enrollment program at Tallahassee Community College. She'll start her junior year at the University of Florida on a scholarship this month and plans to attend medical school. But Anifowoshe says she is the exception: "People around here don't realize tobacco's gone and you've got to stop blaming it for everything," she says. "The expectations here are way too low."

But over a plate of fried green tomatoes at a nouveau-Southern restaurant in tiny Havana -- its historic downtown is an isolated island of trendiness -- James points to a growing sense of possibility around the county. He speculates that part of the reason for the higher test scores was the county's sheer embarrassment at being labeled "the worst." He and others credit district superintendent Harold Henderson for talking -- outspokenly -- about the county's problems rather than attempting to hide them, as generations of politicians and school officials had done before. (Henderson did not respond to phone calls requesting an interview for this story.)

Some in the county, which has the largest percentage of registered Democrats in the state, are even willing to credit Bush and Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, both Republicans, for adopting Gadsden's schools as a cause. In May, the Department of Education and Gadsden School Board signed an unprecedented agreement to work together on improving the schools, in a plan that will include extending the school year, creating parent-training and remedial programs, improving teacher pay and creating a "second chance" school for disruptive students.

Still others see divine intervention at work. Before this year's FCAT exams, ministers across the county led their congregations to pray for better scores.

Along with the test scores, philanthropy and community involvement are on the rise as well. In the tobacco town of Gretna, where 72% of families fell into poverty when the industry folded three decades ago, the all-white, 32-member Gretna Presbyterian Church is working with the state on a $450,000 scholarship endowment. Children at Gretna Elementary who stay out of trouble and finish public school with at least a 2.7 grade point average are guaranteed two years tuition at Tallahassee Community College. In Chattahoochee, Florida State Hospital has gotten involved with the local schools for the first time in its 123-year history, sending in tutors and mentors and loaning out technical expertise and equipment. In Quincy, community groups traditionally separated by race are working together on grant applications. A major new arts center that will work with the public schools is being built in the old hardware store in downtown Quincy's historic square.

Unfortunately, this isn't the first time the community has been poised for change. In 1996, when Quincy was named an All-American City (the judges chose Quincy in part for "recognizing its problems"), rich and poor gathered downtown to hang bunting on the yellow-brick county courthouse and share a rare moment of civic pride. But the moment was squandered, both black and white leaders say. "We didn't make any follow-up plans, and we failed in our efforts to use the award to bring us closer together," says James.

Residents say they know it'll take more than bunting to lift their community. And they know it won't happen overnight. But this time, they feel sure it will happen. "I don't think we'll turn a sharp corner," says Williams. "I think we will gradually increase the capacity of the people and gradually bring in industry."

Tags: Florida Small Business, Politics & Law, Business Florida

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