The cinder-block buildings that will house Jones High School's science classrooms, technology center and cafeteria are halfway completed. In the field across the street, portable classrooms already await the fall term. This summer 12 of the school's 13 old buildings will be demolished and a new campus will be constructed.
There's change in the air at Jones, Orange County Public Schools' oldest high school and black Orlando's proudest achievement. But not everyone is happy with the new development.
In an era when even schools are being super-sized, there's concern among alumni and parents that Jones is maintaining status quo. The district plans to build 75 new classrooms at Jones -- replacing the exact number the school has now. The proposed auditorium will actually contain 300 fewer seats than the current auditorium. Most disappointing to many Jones advocates: Plans won't include a large, spectacular atrium where the Tigers can show off their school pride.
Part of the new school's specs are driven by policies at the state Department of Education. Those policies, in turn, are driven by student enrollment. And here is where most of the problem lies: District officials project that Jones' enrollment, even with a new campus, will increase from 1,330 to only 1,500 kids.
Which leaves many Jones advocates wondering if the district is building a high school or a middle school.
"They're doing a terrible job of predicting enrollment," says Barbara Young, chairwoman of a 60-person community group that supports Jones. A 1968 Jones High grad who coaches baton twirling and has been a substitute teacher at her alma mater, Jones anticipates at least 2,000 students will attend Jones once the new school is built. "They're not looking at any growth. They build other schools expecting them to have so much growth. They look at us like we're not going to grow. That's the attitude they've had for Jones since I can remember."
Distrust between members of the Jones community and district officials has remained high ever since the district threatened to shut down the school in the late 1960s. At the time, school officials were under pressure to integrate. Seeing many of its schools closing, the black community rallied around Jones, which has a history that dates back to 1886 when it was known as Orlando Black.
Like many alumni, Young names a number of well-known Jones High grads as evidence of the school's renown: pro football player Nate Newton, actor Wesley Snipes, Orange County judge Belvin Perry, Orlando City Commissioner Ernest Page, the late City Commissioner Nap Ford, former state Rep. Alzo Reddick and City of Orlando Community and Youth Services director Walter Hawkins. "Jones is to the black community of Orlando as the Washington Monument is to the United States," says Young. "When you see the Washington Monument, you see this country. That's what Jones is to the black community of Orange County."
To protest the closing of Jones, kids stayed home from school for two weeks. Not just Jones students, but students all across the district. Eventually the school board backed down, and Jones survived. But in a subsequent effort to forcibly integrate the teaching staff, the district held a kind of lottery, sending teachers to different schools with nothing more than a weekend's notice. Many never had a chance to tell their students goodbye.
Since then, many people feel the school board has purposely kept Jones as the smallest school in the district even though it is the most centrally located school in Orlando. The district's own numbers tell the story. Jones' 1,330-student enrollment is 1,000 fewer than Oak Ridge High, the next least-populated high school in the district. Nine of the district's 12 high schools have more than 3,000 students. Even the two new high schools, which will open in August, expect nearly 3,000 students. So, allies of Jones ask, why can't their school be built larger so that it has more visibility and prestige? Especially when the district can redraw the boundaries to include children from the predominantly black neighborhoods of Rock Lake, Griffin Park and Washington Shores -- not to mention the hundreds of kids who choose to attend another school even though they are inside Jones' boundary?
"I run into kids all the time who tell me they want to go to Jones but their parents won't let them," says Young.
Why won't they?
Because Jones is run down, and has been for years. The roof leaks to the point that the ceiling tiles have yellowed and paint constantly peels. The science rooms don't have gas because the pipes are old. And the plumbing in the bathrooms is so bad that some girls hold their bladders the entire school day until they get home.
"I wouldn't want anyone going there looking like it does," says Kat Gordon, the Orange County school board member whose district includes Jones. Gordon, who took office in November, has graduated two children from Jones and has another daughter, Stacey, who is a senior at the school. She concedes she doesn't have all the answers but promises to push forward with a more progressive agenda on Jones' behalf. "I have a lot of work to do," she says.
Unlike some pro-Jones forces, Gordon isn't ready to condemn the rest of the seven-member school board for neglecting Jones. "It would hurt me in my heart to know that this board does not want Jones to be successful," she says. "It would hurt me to know that they don't want this to be a viable school."
Since the district has kept the school small, the Jones group has developed theories about what they feel is the district's subversive agenda. One is that the district eventually will turn Jones into a middle, alternative or vo-tech school, a move that Jones alumni will surely fight since those schools don't have the "dignity" of a high school.
"It looks like they're trying to weed out the school if the numbers aren't up to par," says LeRoy Argrett Jr., a retired Orange County history teacher and Jones grad. "They could turn it into a middle school or close it."
The other theory is that the city of Orlando wants the property Jones sits on. This idea is fueled by Jones' valuable location in the shadow of the Citrus Bowl, a block from well-traveled Orange Blossom Trail and within easy access of the East-West Expressway.
What adds to the theory is that the city already leases 28 acres across the street from Jones. And Jones' alumni don't appreciate that the city leases the acreage from the school board for $1 per year, which allows city officials to maintain the Orlando Sports Complex, because it creates the impression that city events come before Jones.
More to the point, the Jones group speculates that the city wants the rest of the school's land for Citrus Bowl parking or an as-yet-unnamed project. "When [the city and school district] work together, they can do anything," says Argrett, who wrote a book on black Orlando history. "Look at what they've done already with property right across the street."
But if the district does plan to sell the school, why is it spending $35 million to rebuild it?
"Thirty-five million is no money," Young argues. "Dr. Phillips [High] is worth more than $35 million. If the right kind of deal comes up, the city could buy the property and still build a brand new school [elsewhere]. Any hotel would love to be there. Any company would like to put its office there."
City administrators, including Orlando's chief administrative officer and its director of planning and zoning, deny that Orlando covets the property. School board member Barbara Trovillion-Rushing further says the district has no plans to sell it. "There is nothing to that as far as I know," she says. "I have never heard any plans or any talk."
School board chairwoman Susan Arkin adds the district has no desire to shutter Jones or convert it to other uses. "We need all of our schools to be successful and thriving," she says. "Jones is one of our historically rich gems."
Trovillion-Rushing was the lone board member who felt compelled to answer Barbara Young's group when members showed up to speak at the Feb. 27 school board meeting. Trovillion-Rushing noted the district has 131 schools that need remodeling, creating a $1.2 billion construction shortfall in the district's budget over the next five years. Only seven of those schools are targeted for remodeling or rebuilding this year.
"I could understand what they were saying if Jones wasn't on the list of seven schools," says Trovillion-Rushing. "I could understand everything they're saying if they weren't getting the $35 million. But I don't understand why they continue to come down and say what they continue to say. We have 20 times [the seven schools] who didn't make it on the list."
Then again, if Jones wasn't on the list, there'd be something seriously wrong. Jones ranked second, behind Boone High School, as having the most "comprehensive needs" in the district. Indeed, the entire list emphasizes that schools in the central region -- the area that amounts to Orlando's inner city -- have been skipped over as the district ballooned from 80,000 students in 1985 to 150,000 today -- an 85 percent increase in 15 years. Twenty-two of the top 50 schools in need of repair are in the central region. Only three of the bottom 50 are in this area.
"We have had to defer maintenance of our older schools to keep up with growth [in the suburbs]," says Trovillion-Rushing.
But the Jones group is impatient with this argument. To them, it sidesteps the real issue: race. They see the school board as an emblem of an oppressive, white society that has long favored white kids in those suburbs over the black kids who faced hostility, resentment and neglect.
Wardell Sims is a retired Kennedy Space Center administrator who graduated from Jones in 1958. He recalls that when Jones was being built at its present location in 1952, white neighbors near Jones would take pot shots at workers in a vain attempt to halt construction. "They didn't want us there," Sims says. "They told all kinds of stories about what would transpire if the school was built there. They said we would molest and rape their daughters." During Sims' school days, he remembers seeing books stamped with Boone and Edgewater high schools. His assumption: Jones received the old books from white schools when the white schools received new ones.
When it comes to funding Jones now, the Jones group's opinion is that Jones belongs in a special category because it was underfunded for so many years.
"You're finally doing something for us, and you're saying it's equal?" Young asks. "We started off way back. We're behind in the race."
What offends many in the Jones camp is that a group called Save Our Schools had an agreement with the school district in the late 1970s to encourage enrollment by designating Jones as the magnet school in the district. The program was modeled on Dillard High School, an inner-city school in Fort Lauderdale that was closed at one point because it didn't have enough students. The idea is that to draw kids, especially white children, a school has to have novel programs that they cannot find anywhere else. As Maxine Waters, the NAACP's national education committee, once said, "Resources always follow the white child."
Save Our Schools wanted Jones to become the magnet school in Orange County. Sims says the group had a commitment from the district to place most of the magnet programs at Jones. But somewhere along the way the idea changed, and many of the schools in the district employed magnet programs. Jones wound up being the last one to begin a magnet program. The school's sports-medicine program hasn't attracted a single white student since it began five years ago.
Consequently, enrollment at Jones has averaged slightly more than 1,000 students for two decades. "The administration has reneged on many of its promises," says James Q. Mitchell, a member of Save Our Schools. "It hasn't dealt Jones a fair hand for years."
Magnet programs aren't a panacea in themselves, however. Educators typically warn against using them alone to draw students.
"It is easier to get whites to commit to a magnet school if there is a strong policy and recruitment from the district," says Gary Orfield, a Harvard professor who is one of the nation's leading experts on school integration. "This assures that the school starts out integrated and breaks the stereotype that may have attached to the school before the magnet program began. Of course, the content of the magnet and the skill with which it is delivered make a big difference both for initial recruitment and for long-term success."
Orfield is touching on a subject that many Jones advocates would like to see the district and Jones officials employ. They'd like to see more of a rah-rah spirit in the district's approach. As it stands, the district leaves magnet programs to school administrators; it is a bottom-up approach, rather than a top-down.
"The entire community has to get behind Jones," Sims says. "The P.R. department has to do the P.R. The district needs to open its arms and invite the community to be involved. They have a tendency to push us out."
Kat Gordon is taking a step to bring the district and Jones' supporters closer together. She is planning a clearing-the-air meeting March 29 where the Jones group and district officials can begin to create a vision of where Jones will be in 100 years -- and how it will get there.
The meeting might go a long way to bring the Jones group up to speed on the district's perception of the school and will hopefully lead to a dialogue about how to truly integrate Jones, the district's only high school that is more than 76 percent African-American.
Conversely, the Jones group expects it will be giving an education to district officials for years to come.
"A lot of times, you don't know the history because you can't feel it," Young explains. "You can tell them all day long, but it's not their history."
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.