There is a Charter School Movement taking place in Orlando’s Urban Core and at the forefront is Dr. Jennifer Porter-Smith. Dr. Smith is a dynamo. As Executive Director of Legends Academy Charter School and the Nap Ford Charter School, she leads an innovative team of teachers and administrators that embrace the idea of “preparing schools for children instead of preparing children for school.”
One in 17 Florida students attended a charter school last year. There are many reasons that parents are choosing Charter Schools for their children and contrary to popular belief it is not because they all believe that public schools do not work. Distance, smaller number of students per class, extracurricular activities, extended school hours and extended care are a few of the reasons parents choose Charter Schools. Many feel that charter schools are a better fit for their child’s personality and may increase their chances for success. Charter schools allow parents, community leaders, educational entrepreneurs, and others the flexibility to innovate, create and provide students with increased educational options. Charter schools exercise increased autonomy in return for stronger accountability. They are sponsored by designated local, state, or other organizations that monitor their quality and integrity while holding them accountable for academic results and fiscal practices.1
Legends Academy Charter School is located at 3032 Monte Carlo Trail, in Orlando’s Urban Core, and is a part of The Hope Church’s Campus. The Hope Church, led by Bishop Allen Wiggins, has been in the forefront of change in the Washington Shores Community, advocating for business development within the community, housing improvements, and early education programs that ultimately prepare students for success in high school and college.
The majority of students that attend Legends Academy are from the community. Their parents are looking for a different approach to learning; one that fits the needs of their kids. 99% of the students attending the Academy are African-American and 97% are living at or below the poverty level. The mission of the Academy is to close the 60% achievement gap that exists between these children and those living outside of the Urban Core. The Academy is a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (S.T.E.M) school with a focus on Art Integration. All third, fourth and fifth graders have tablets. The S.T.E.M program challenges the student’s creativity through various engineering designs and prototype creations.
A Typical Day at Legends
The day begins at 7:30 am with breakfast and ends at 3:30. The school day is an extended one as classes begin at 8:00 am. Other elementary schools begin their day at 8:45am and end at 3:00pm. When students arrive at school they have at least two positive interactions with adult staff before even seeing their teacher. Each day students are greeted and welcomed to school and then they are ushered into the main auditorium where they received the day’s announcements and other important information. Students that have achieved minor and major milestones are recognized and every student is encouraged to put forth their best effort. It is this type of positive environment that sets the tone for a positive and successful day and builds unity by celebrating one another.
Dr. Smith describes her staff as revolutionaries, committed to the cause and deserving of recognition. Legends Academy is currently a K-6 grade facility with a goal to expand to 8th grade. Many of the employees are invested in the community and want to give back. In many cases they know or grew up with the mothers and fathers of some of the students and because they know the back stories of some of these families they are able to better relate to them.
Dr. Smith is the first to say that without Community Partners a lot of programs at the Academy would not be possible. Some of the partners include Lift Orlando, the University of Central Florida, Hebni Nutrition and Orlando Food Services Group. The Academy embraces the concept of “Total Family” and through some of the programs that have been implemented; they are able to provide education and information to families that include healthy lifestyles through diet and nutrition. The Parramore Kid’s Zone (PKZ) Baby Institute is one such partner, teaching families how to become their child’s first teacher. This nine week program culminates in a graduation ceremony and follows up with families by offering social and emotional support via its alumni program. The program aligns with one of the Academy’s goals which is to create a family of learners through community inclusion from conception to career.
Although Legends Academy is a Public School, many of its programs require separate funding. Grants are integral to the continual operation of these programs. There is not a charge for tuition but preference is given to the children that live in the community. The Academy currently has approximately 250 students, grades kindergarten through sixth. Currently classes are held in portables but the Academy has set a long-term goal to acquire a permanent facility in the near future.
Dr. Jennifer Porter-Smith
Dr. Jennifer Porter-Smith did not set out to become an Educator, but life certainly prepared her for it. Both of her parents are educators. Dr. Smith, however, chose a different career path. She grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida and is a graduate of The University of Florida. She holds a Ph.D. in Physiological Psychology and began her career as a research professor specializing in the neurosciences. After the birth of her daughter, Dr. Smith, like many mothers, began to read books on child rearing. Her mindset as a researcher compelled her to dig a little deeper than the typical mother would. It was during this research that she first learned of the achievement gap between children of poverty and those of middle and upper class populations. “I didn’t realize that such a disparity existed” she says. Dr. Smith then began to read about Charter Schools and the movement to bridge this gap. Impressed by what she read Dr. Smith decided to pursue a career in education. A position was available with OCPS in their Data Analysis Division which she took and from there she transitioned into education. Her goal: To work with disadvantaged students to bridge this gap within the community she serves. Her top priority – The education of the whole child; physically, academically, socially and emotionally.
Studies have shown that by Age 3, there is a 30 million word gap between children of poverty versus children of middle/upper class populations. Early identification of reading readiness problems and issues is critical to a student’s success in school.
Tapped in 2005 to lead the Nap Ford Charter School in the Parramore Community as Executive Director and armed with these statistics Dr. Porter, along with community partners, dedicated staff, parents and other supporters developed programs designed for improving the health, education and well-being of not only the children, but the total family. Then in 2015 Dr. Porter was the logical and best choice to lead and implement these programs at Legends Academy which serves the Washington Shores Community.
Dr. Smith is married to her husband David and they have two children, Rachel and Solomon. Both children attended the Nap Ford Charter School.
Dr. Smith is optimistic about the future of the Legends Academy and passionate about the Charter School Movement. She welcomes the hectic schedules, planning, juggling of personal and professional life and many other factors that come with the day to day operations of running a Charter School, acknowledging that the rewards far outweigh the challenges.
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”…Frederick Douglass
To learn more about Legends Academy visit www.legendsacademy.org.