State scholarship expansions send Jacksonville school’s enrollment soaring

Editor’s note: This story is published in celebration of National School Choice Week, which runs Jan. 21-27. 

In the early 1980s, a young educator and pastor named Frederic Pinkney received a vision of a school where all children got the attention they needed to succeed.  

Years later, in 1996, he left his Duval County district classroom to co-found Joshua Christian Academy and make that vision a reality in Jacksonville. The school’s journey from scrappy start-up to enduring community institution in the northwest corner of Florida’s largest city traces the 25-year arc of education choice in the Sunshine State, which reached new highs this school year thanks to the largest-ever expansion of educational options in America’s history. 

Joshua Christian Academy opened its doors three years before Jeb Bush became Florida’s 43rd governor and led the charge for school choice scholarships in the Sunshine State, which was then called the nation’s most ambitious program. 

“People paid for their children to go,” Pinkney recalled.  

School leaders celebrate at a ribbon cutting for Joshua Christian Academy’s new building, named for co-founder Dr. Gloria Pinkney. Photos courtesy of Joshua Christian Academy

The community was hungry for options. As a public-school teacher, Pinkney enjoyed helping students learn, but he also saw plenty who were struggling. 

“I saw some kids were slipping through the cracks,” he said. He saw kids being passed along to the next grade without mastering the skills necessary to be promoted. He also saw kids, especially Black boys, disciplined more harshly than white kids for the same infractions.  

He said he knew there had to be a better way. 

Before the school officially opened, Pinkney served as the sole employee. That included getting an occupancy certificate from city hall, where staff kept saying no.  

“For three months, I went to city hall every day, four or five times a week,” before a director signed off on the request. “I never backed down.” 

With approvals finally in hand, Pinkney opened the school with six students. His wife, Gloria, a 19-year elementary school educator, left her job and helped her husband run the school. Church members volunteered for non-instructional tasks. Pinkney’s sister made lunches for the children. The Pinkneys’ daughter, Lisa Harris, also played a key role. 

In the early years when there was no state funding source, Joshua Christian Academy experienced uneven growth and at one point had to eliminate the upper grades due to low enrollment. (Those grades were later restored as younger students got promoted.) However, the school managed to grow its elementary school enrollment as word spread about the school’s high academic standards, smaller class sizes and commitment to personalized education. With the state legislature’s passage of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program in 2001 and later the Family Empowerment Scholarship Program in 2019, enrollment began to increase rapidly.  

Last year’s passage of HB 1 provided the rocket fuel that sent enrollment to 400.  

“It turned night into day,” he said. “It changed the culture.” He said the school’s phone rings constantly with calls from parents who want to send their kids there.  

“It’s probably ringing right now,” he said. 

Such growth has allowed the Joshua Christian Academy, home of the Eagles, to offer a comprehensive athletics program and provide transportation to and from school with its fleet of seven shuttle vans and three traditional school buses. Pinkney said some students live at least 20 miles away, though the average distance is about 10. Three years ago, Joshua Christian Academy graduating class members received more than $1 million in higher education scholarships, a point of pride for Pinkney. 

He credits this achievement to his daughter, Lisa Harris, who is now the school’s executive director and has taken over the school’s day-to-day operations as Pinkney stepped back to work with the church. 

Pinkney is also quick to credit his wife, whose many years of experience as an educator helped provide a foundation of excellence from the beginning. In November, Joshua Christian Academy cut the ribbon on a new building to house the upper grades. Its name: “Dr. Gloria Pinkney High School.”  

 


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BY Lisa Buie

Lisa Buie is senior reporter for NextSteps. The daughter of a public school superintendent, she spent more than a dozen years as a reporter and bureau chief at the Tampa Bay Times before joining Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa, where she served for nearly five years as marketing and communications manager. She lives with her husband and their teenage son, who has benefited from education choice.

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