Alternative schools for at-risk girls desperately needed more funding. Now they will have it

After a year-and-a-half long battle, a nonprofit education program was granted the funds it says it needs to carry on serving disadvantaged elementary and middle school girls in Manatee County.

“Without Just for Girls, I wouldn’t be here,” said one of the program’s former students at a school board meeting on Tuesday.

Abby McCrum said the school was like a flashlight that helped her navigate a dark time in her life and deal with issues including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Before the meeting was out, the school board voted 4-1 to grant additional funding to Just for Girls Middle School in Palmetto and Just for Girls Elementary School in Bradenton.

An additional $86,000 in funding was allocated between the two schools.

The need arose after voters approved a referendum in March 2018 that raised property tax rates to support Manatee County schools in raising salaries, lengthening school days and improving classes.

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Just for Girls expanded its hours and raised teacher salaries to keep up with other schools in the district. But the share of tax funds that the nonprofit was expecting never came.

They were forced to run at a deficit and eventually apply for a line of credit to stay operational, according to chief executive officer Becky Canesse.

Board member Charlie Kennedy has said that it was an oversight that left contract schools like Just for Girls out of the referendum, and he intends to adjust the language of the next referendum in 2022 to include them.

Just for Girls is a private nonprofit that falls into a separate category from traditional, charter and private schools. It’s unusual status raised concerns with some school board members about whether Just for Girls should receive the same level of district funds as other schools.

In the end, a majority agreed that the services the organization provides justified it.

Board chairman Dave Miner cast the lone dissenting votes on contract amendments, reiterating concerns about the program’s academic performance and questioning whether funding it came at a disadvantage to public school students.

He repeatedly categorized Just for Girls as private schools — a designation that the organization has disputed.

Miner also outlined the schools’ academic performance gains, which lagged considerably behind the district’s Title 1 schools in the 2018-2019 school year.

However, board member James Golden, who previously served on the board of Just For Girls, said that the schools offer something more than a conventional education.

“This is about these people doing what no other school in this county will do,” Golden said. “There are some people that are in so much pain, some people that have so much trouble — some people that are just so confused about life. And the only institution that they can turn to is a public school. Because a real private school wouldn’t accept any of them.”

Board member Gina Messenger expressed her support for Just for Girls’ mission, but said it needed to be backed up with academic improvements.

“I appreciate the district working on contract negotiations that highlight the need for educational benchmarks,” Messenger said.

As part of the agreement for the additional funding, Just for Girls is expected to meet at least two of the criteria of the Every Student Succeeds Act — a set of standards also imposed upon traditional and charter schools.

“Now comes the hard part,” Golden said after the measure was passed. “Proving deserving of the trust that we have put in you with the most vulnerable population of children that we have in our community.”

Just for Girls continues to serve as a guiding light for alumna McCrum.

McCrum said that after her time in the program, she went on to graduate high school with a 4.0 GPA and credits to spare. McCrum, 18, said she recently got her first real job.

“Just for Girls started me back on the right path,” McCrum said.

After the additional funds were approved, representatives of Just for Girls were optimistic about the next steps for the program.

“We’re elated and so humbled on behalf of the girls that we serve and the community,” Canesse said.

Just for Girls board member Marlene Woodson-Howard said that, in one way, the fight for funding has been a positive. “Now people know who we are and what we do,” she said.

As for the future, Just for Girls plans to work toward the standards set out by the school board and continue its mission of empowering students to improve on their ABC’s — academics, behavior and character.

There are also plans to increase the program’s capacity for students with the expansion and redevelopment of its west campus at 3809 59th St. W. in Bradenton, according to Canesse. In addition to its educational function, the new campus will be shared with the community as an emergency facility and storm shelter.

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