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Saturday, Apr 19, 2014

Charter school changes considered

Published:   |   Updated: January 12, 2014 at 02:49 PM

TAMPA — Kid’s Community College knows how to get it done when it comes to starting up a charter school in Hillsborough County, submitting successful applications for learning centers that opened in 2005, 2010 and 2012.

Its newest school, Kid’s Community College Southeast in Riverview, is bidding to become the first elementary charter school in Hillsborough to qualify as a challenging International Baccalaureate primary years program.

“It is a very huge step,” said Michele Pruitt, the school’s marketing manager and also a parent.

Now, Kid’s Community College — and anyone interested in starting a new charter school — may have to learn some new steps to get it done. Three changes set for consideration in the state Legislature would inject the Florida Department of Education into a process now largely controlled at the school district level.

The proposals would require a review of all charter school applications by the state, establish a standard contract to replace those in use among the state’s 67 districts, and make available to charter school operators certain public school rooms that are not in use.

Some state lawmakers say local districts may be holding back the innovation charter schools were intended to foster.

“We’re trying to streamline the process so it’s an even playing field,” said state Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican who serves on the House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee. “The districts have concern they may be losing control over the process, but they’re not. If they have any contention with the charter school application, it should be brought up in the review process.”

Jenna Hodgens, charter schools director in Hillsborough County, sees the proposed changes differently.

“As it is written, it would, in essence, take authority away,” Hodgens said. “A contract is an agreement between two parties. The issue is you don’t really get to do an agreement between two parties. You have something standard you agree upon and anything past that would have to be negotiated into it.”

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State law establishes the requirements for a charter school and local school districts determine if applicants meet them. If they do, charter schools are free to operate with taxpayer money independent of district control.

Applicants make a case to the school district for how they can better serve students who may not be getting everything they need from traditional public schools. Some emphasize math and science or the arts, others focus on serving students with disabilities and still others feature a curriculum tailored to students interested in medicine.

The Hillsborough County school district, eighth-largest in the country, has the fifth-highest growth rate for charter schools, according to a recent report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. More parents than ever are opting to put their children in charter schools as opposed to traditional public schools.

At the beginning of this school year, 13,827 students were enrolled in Hillsborough charter schools — 2,160 more than the 11,677 enrolled the previous fall.

Of 92 charter schools approved to open in Hillsborough County in the past 17 years, 39 have either closed or never opened, according to a school district report. Reasons for the 21 closures include governance issues, as well as academic or financial troubles.

Of the 14 applications to open charter schools next school year, the Hillsborough district staff recommended and the school board approved six, which will bring the number of district charter schools to 48.

State Rep. Diaz said the requirement for state review of all charter school applications amounts to no more than “technical assistance” in determining whether it meets state standards.

“That allows them to get some feedback before it goes to the district,” Diaz said. “The review is nonbinding.”

But Hodgens says this dual review would set up potential conflicts.

“A letter from the Department of Education saying, ‘This application meets all statutory requirements’ could pose a problem for districts who found there was something in the application that did not meet statutory requirements,” she said. “It is concerning.”

Diaz said the requirement to open unused classroom space just makes sense.

“If that space is paid for by hardworking taxpayers, we should make it available to charter schools,” he said. “However, it needs to be fair, where they hold up their end and are good stewards of that property.”

The proposed state changes come at a time when interest in opening new charter schools appears to have hit a plateau.

Until last year, the number of applications rose steadily in Hillsborough. In 2011, the district received 27 applications in 2012, just 11 and in 2013, 14. It’s a trend seen at district statewide, Hodgens said.

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Last school year, seven charter schools opened with Hillsborough school board approval. Six of the seven are still in operation. The seventh, GATES Senior High School — for Global School of the Arts, Technology and Environmental Sustainability — closed at the end of its first year.

Among the six schools still open, Henderson Hammock Charter School and RCMA Leadership Academy received a C grade from the state in 2013 and Channelside Math and Science Academy, a middle school, got a B.

The other three — Kid’s Community College Southeast, W.E. Phillips Learning Academy and RCMA Leadership Academy — only served students in kindergarten through second grade last school year so they did not receive a grade. Students’ test scores are calculated into a school’s grade starting in the third grade.

Some of the six have faced challenges in their first year and a half. In addition to securing a campus and getting teachers and students adjusted to a new school, one — W.E. Phillips Learning Academy — has fallen into financial hardship from low enrollment, Hodgens said.

The school serves about 45 mostly migrant students and is in the process of submitting a corrective action plan to the district and to the Department of Education.

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Kid’s Community College Southeast opened just its primary grades last year, for students in kindergarten through second grade. This year, the school added third grade, and fourth and fifth will be added in the next two years.

The school insists on involvement from the parents of its 180 students, requiring 20 volunteer hours per year. That’s what attracted marketing manager Pruitt as a parent.

She also appreciates that students meet one-on-one with teachers frequently to determine which way each of them learns best — a feature she wouldn’t expect at a traditional public school.

“Some people learn musically, some learn hands on,” Pruitt said.

“The teachers have to know my child to figure it out. What they found is she’s a visual learner. They teach on a higher standard, from a parent’s perspective.”

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