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Thursday, Oct 30, 2014

Montessori charter school OK’d in St. Pete Beach

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LARGO — Maria Lowe is not only a new resident of St. Pete Beach but also a new mother to her 10-year-old stepson. When it came time to prepare him for the new school year, she found herself in a panic.

“I have no ability to have a mutually supportive community environment as a parent, or for my child to be able to go to school and come home and be with his classmates, because the closest school is Azalea Middle, and that’s 30 minutes away,” Lowe said. “That’s tough. That’s daunting.”

Instead of transporting her son over the bridge to the mainland public school in St. Petersburg, Lowe spends about $14,000 a year to keep him in a neighborhood private school, giving him more time to explore his new neighborhood and family.

A new charter middle school in St. Pete Beach could lift that financial off Lowe’s shoulders.

Pinellas County School Board members voted Tuesday to approve an application for Academy by the Sea, which would be the only Montessori middle school in the school district and the only public school on Pinellas’ barrier islands.

Groups of elementary students, about 15 to 20 parents and St. Pete Beach Mayor Steve McFarlin addressed School Board members at their meeting about the need Academy by the Sea would fill for the island community, where approximately 1,900 families have children enrolled in public and private schools. The only schools on the barrier islands are private schools that charge tuition.

In addition to offering a public school alternative closer to home, Academy by the Sea would offer options for Montessori students. Students at Gulfport Elementary School’s Montessori magnet program, along with two private Montessori schools — Alegria Montessori School in St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach elementary school Montessori By the Sea — would be able to continue with the Montessori curriculum at Academy by the Sea. There have been no Montessori middle schools in Pinellas — public or private — and there are no Montessori high schools.

Administrators at Academy by the Sea hope to open in the former Gulf Beaches Elementary school at 8600 Boca Ciega Drive. That St. Pete Beach public elementary was closed by the school district in June 2009 after 60 years as more hotels and snowbirds moved in and families moved out. Gulf Beaches had about 260 students when it closed; the Montessori charter school hopes to enroll about 176 fourth- through eighth-grade students. If that location doesn’t work out, Academy by the Sea officials are eyeing Madeira Beach and Treasure Island.

The St. Pete Beach City Commission unanimously passed a resolution in support of Academy by the Sea this year and has a “universal agreement to re-establish a school in the city, said City Commissioner Jim Parent.

For the school to open next school year, administrators must now submit a full charter to the school district for approval. School Board members also approved applications for East Windsor Middle Academy Charter School and Plato Academy South, the sixth Plato charter school in the school district.

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