ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County has adopted a struggling charter high school as its own, with plans to reopen it this fall.
Gulf Coast Academy High School, an alternative school in Largo for students in danger of dropping out of high school, will close at the end of the year with a 7 percent graduation rate. A majority of its students are 17 or older, yet are in their first few years of high school and aren’t taking enough courses to graduate in four years, said Rita Vasquez, director of high school education
The students have a history of poor engagement in school, which also means poor attendance. They have been held back in previous grades and the traditional learning environments “just aren’t going to work,” Vasquez said.
“These are the ones that are going to need a little extra TLC when they come in,” School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook said. “They’re going to need a cheerleader to convince them that they can do this, because for years they’ve decided they can’t.”
School board members are expected to vote Tuesday on taking over the lease for less than half of what the current charter was paying for the building, Deputy Superintendent Bill Corbett said.
School district officials hope to enroll 525 over-aged high school students in its first year, about 300 of whom currently are enrolled at the charter school. The remaining 225 students would be former Pinellas students who have dropped out and want to “drop-back in,” Corbett said, as well as students referred from area high schools. There is room on the property to add four to six classrooms if attendance grows.
To attract more students, the school will offer electives in digital music and art. Students will have the option to create graphic designs or to produce studio- quality albums while finishing their remaining coursework, giving them a marketable skill and a high school education.
“This is something that’s really missing in these kinds of programs, and we know these are obvious hooks that will absolutely engage these kids in school,” Vasquez said.
To accommodate as many students as possible in the current “very compact” structure, students will rotate through three courses a day in 100-minute blocks. Students may attend school from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., or 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. They will work at their own pace to achieve an accelerated 18-credit high school diploma or the traditional four-year, 24-credit diploma.
“They can enroll in shifts that would be most conducive for them to go to work and stay involved in school, But if they have a weird schedule one day, they can come in at another time and their teachers won’t look at them cock-eyed and say, ‘Why weren’t you here yesterday?’ ” Vasquez said. “At the same time, we’re not going to hold a student back who catches fire and wants to finish in a year.”
Though the program is hyperfocused on individualized learning and flexibility, students will be expected to earn a minimum of three credits a semester or six credits a year, with the option of taking up to eight credits a year.
To earn state funding, the school district must ensure that each student attends classes for 300 minutes a day, Corbett said. That state funding will go a long way toward ensuring that the $2.2 million project succeeds. Yet even with a 70 percent attendance rate, officials “feel very comfortable we’ll generate excess revenues and do a much better job with this school than had been done in the past,” Corbett said.
The school district hopes to hire a principal and assistant principal, nine academic teachers, including a reading teacher, two exceptional student education teachers, the music and art teachers, a school secretary, a front office clerk, a school counselor, an attendance progress assistant and two school resource officers. Much of the staff will rotate shifts to be available to students at all points in the day, and an adult GED program will operate concurrently at the school, Corbett said.
However, school officials still have a big decision ahead of them: the name.
“I just want the identity to change completely so we can have a clean, fresh start apart from any preconceived notions and make sure its viewed as a Pinellas County school,” School Board Member Peggy O’Shea said.