Everglades City School: A cornerstone for the community

Lance Shearer

There are few institutions of learning in the United States like Everglades City School. But then, there are few towns like Everglades City.

One of the few “single campus schools” among public schools in the country – and the only one in Florida, said Principal Jim Ragusa – Everglades City School puts together students from pre-kindergarten all the way through high school seniors at one location, so children can go to one school for their entire K-12 education. The culture hearkens back to the days of the one-room schoolhouse, while still meeting contemporary standards and preparing students for life in the 21st century.

The school is an integral part of the tiny community of Everglades City, which has only approximately 400 inhabitants, and sits largely isolated in the heart of the Florida Everglades, surrounded on all sides by Everglades National Park. With only 180 students post-Hurricane Irma, the school’s graduating class consisted of just eight students – “but the whole town shows up,” said the principal.

LIza Wells teaches computer skills and technology. Everglades City School, a linchpin of the town, contains all grades from pre-kindergarten to high school senior on one campus.

“We’ve had a few people leave – there was just no housing available,” said Ragusa, thinking back to the days after Everglades City was torn apart and flooded by winds and storm surge from Irma. “That seems like so long ago.”

Ragusa was in a unique position to know what might happen when the hurricane hit last September. When Hurricane Andrew made landfall on Florida’s east coast in 1992, he was teaching and living in Homestead, and his own home was destroyed by the storm.

After Irma, said Ragusa, the strength of a small, tightknit community became apparent. Neighbors helped each other, and everybody helped with the school.

“We lost three buildings to floodwater,” including the school gymnasium, which recently reopened. “Folks here are pretty tough and resilient. The community support is incredible. It’s an economically needy area, but families really value the school.”

The school remained closed for two weeks after the storm, and with the gym and playing fields unsafe, ECS teams played all away games – although that was perhaps the least of their worries.

John Whitcomb's algebra class contains a mix of grade levels. Everglades City School, a linchpin of the town, contains all grades from pre-kindergarten to high school senior on one campus.

“It’s hard to concentrate on academics after a storm like that. People are trying to do their job, fix their homes, meet with insurance adjustors, and see to their businesses.” Many of the school’s students, said Ragusa, work part-time in family businesses, notably stone crabbing. The school sits across the street from the Barron River, with crab boats docked along the shore and crab traps by the hundreds stacked up waiting for the about-to-start stone crab season.

With all the distractions, ECS had an 88 percent graduation rate last year, in line with the district average. About 20 percent go on to college, with another 20 percent heading to vocational or technical training, said Ragusa. One former student, Houston Brown, he said with pride, is earning an Ivy League diploma, set to graduate from Columbia in New York City.

“She left here with 40 college credits” from dual enrolment classes, he noted.

“Teachers, students and townspeople all know each other, and they stay together here for years. Usually, you see kids (as an educator) for three or four years tops. Here, the kids go to school with their brothers and sisters” and staff has time to get to know them.

“The kids graduating this year, I’ve known since they were sixth graders,” said Ragusa. He said the school has not had a theft in six years, and while they issue lockers and locks to the upperclassmen and women, most students don’t bother with the locks.

Some of the school’s 23 teachers have been there much longer. Art teacher Paul Tribble is in his 43rd year at Everglades City School, and taught not only the parents, but the grandparents of some of his current students. Several of the teachers were themselves ECS students back in their youth.

“Everybody’s nice, everybody gets along,” said Assistant Principal Michele Wheeler. “It’s kind of cool to get to see them grow up. The smallness (of the school) is a benefit in many ways, but it’s a challenge too, to offer as many things as we do.” She herself attended a K-12 school in the small Kentucky town where she grew up.

Staffers end up taking on multiple roles at ECS. Media specialist – what used to called librarian – Melissa Owen is the yearbook supervisor, runs the school’s television production studio, serves as wellness coach and teacher for the Innovation through Digital Instruction program, runs the bookfair, and acts as the building technology coordinator – among other functions.

When Ragusa dropped in to visit a kindergarten class, he got a big hug from a little girl named Evie, concened about the bandage on his forehead from recent skin cancer removal.

“You still have the booboo,” Evie pointed out.

Kathy Brock, publisher of local newspaper the Mullet Wrapper, said that while the town helps the school, the school is vital to the town.

“We’re 45 miles from anywhere. Our school is a cornerstone for this community,” she said. “And Jim Ragusa is off the charts, a very special educator. After the hurricane, Jim took charge. The staff went above and beyond, delivering food. The school provides more than just education.”