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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Newberry Education First initiative divides Newberry community

The initiative would change Newberry public schools to charter schools

Newberry High School pictured on Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024.
Newberry High School pictured on Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024.

Passionate residents of Newberry refer to the community as having a special charm. Joel Searby, a leader of the Newberry Education First initiative, credits Newberry’s special qualities to the diverse, tight-knit population. 

“It’s a community of people who know each other, who interact together daily, who play sports together, who coach our kids together, who represent a really diverse group of people,” he said. 

Newberry Education First initiative wants to convert the three Newberry schools into public charters under the guidance of community leaders. The initiative wants to ensure “excellent education, increased teacher pay and the same great sports and activities we all love,” according to its website.

In April, teachers and parents will receive a ballot to vote on changing the schools to charters. Newberry Elementary needs 23 teachers and 165 families to vote yes, Oakview Middle needs 27 teachers and 235 families to vote yes and Newberry High needs 19 teachers and 189 families to vote yes for the initiative to pass.

A parent to two children in Newberry schools, Searby and other parents were concerned about pressure on teachers, large class sizes, portable classrooms, mandates from the school board and divisive politics. 

“We’re seeing our students of all backgrounds struggle, and we wanted to step up as parents and try to do something about that,” Searby said. 

He said students and teachers struggle with the large class sizes at Newberry schools. 

“The challenges that are happening in the classrooms of just oversized classes make it really hard for teachers to teach and students to learn,” he said. 

Searby also said operational issues, such as long wait times for air conditioning maintenance and light bulb changes, negatively impact Newberry schools. 

The Education First for Newberry team worked on the initiative for months before debuting the platform. 

“There is an extensive amount of research that has to go into something like this and we wanted to make sure that we understood the process and that honestly we supported it,” Searby said. “We didn’t want to jump into it without really understanding it.” 

As part of its research and planning process, the initiatives board met with national and state experts on charter school conversions. It also worked with city officials, such as Newberry mayor and high school teacher Jordan Marlowe, to bring the idea to fruition. 

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Marlowe helped the initiative figure out what questions Newberry community members would have for the change, he said. Each time he gave more questions to the board, it returned with answers. 

“They’ve answered everything from school lunches to accrued sick leave, curriculum, discipline, transportation,” he said. “They understand the process. They understand the monumental task that they’re undertaking. They’re willing to do the work.” 

Marlowe understands the initial concern from parents at the idea of exiting the Alachua County Public School system. 

“I absolutely understand the anxiety and the fear of parents right now when you first hear this idea,” he said. “I think that the best way to calm that anxiety is to listen to the plan, which is why I think it’s important that these parents did the work that they did ahead of time, so that they could answer the questions.”

Marlowe said the Newberry City Commission always stands in strong support of community desires, and it’s excited to have options to optimize student education.  

“If this is something the community wants to do, then I know that the commission will stand 100% behind our residents — behind our parents — to provide the best education that we can,” he said. 

He said Newberry’s special community of dedicated parents “is a sight to behold.”

“To have a group of parents come forth and say, ‘I not only know those things, but I have an idea. I have something that may work better. Will you help us figure out the details? Will you help us fine-tune this plan?’” Marlowe said. “That to me is amazing.” 

Rob Baker, a parent to two children at Oakview Middle, is against the initiative. He worries about the secrecy within the proposal drafted, how charters would solve overcrowding and the initiative’s decision to bring Oakview Middle and Newberry High into the charter conversion. 

“They could have had community meetings to solicit community input, but they chose not to do that,” he said. “I have heard from individuals involved in the movement that was done to minimize opposition to the movement.” 

Baker understands overcrowding is an issue at Newberry Elementary as his children were affected by the population size. However, he said the initiative doesn’t do anything to fix the problem. 

“By their own admission, even after they charter the elementary school, it is going to remain overcrowded” Baker said. “Right now, they do not have a clear plan forward to build additional facilities at the elementary school, which means that the problem that they’re trying to solve not only will persist, but there’s not a plan to fix it.” 

He believes Newberry needs an additional elementary school to combat the overcrowding. 

Baker said there is no evidence the middle school needs to be brought into the charter program and parents are scared to lose the existing magnet program.

If Newberry schools change to charters, he is likely to pull out his kids, he said. 

Contact Megan Howard at Follow her on X @meganmhxward.

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Megan Howard

Megan Howard is a second-year journalism major and the K-12 Education reporter for The Alligator. When she's not writing, you can find her rewatching the Eras Tour movie or reading The Hunger Games series.

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