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Tuesday, Jul 22, 2014

Struggling charter schools to be shuttered

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Published:   |   Updated: April 2, 2014 at 12:05 AM

LARGO — Low graduation rates, negative bank accounts and chronic failing grades from the state are a few of the problems facing charter schools created to serve Pinellas County’s most struggling populations, two of which will close at the end of the school year.

During a school board workshop Tuesday, board members learned that Imagine Middle School in St. Petersburg will be shut down in June under a state statute that requires school districts to close charter schools that receive two F grades consecutively from the state.

Imagine’s elementary school closed last school year under the same provision, and closing the struggling middle school is just “sealing the deal at this point,” Superintendent Michael Grego said.

School board members also learned that Gulfcoast Academy in Largo will not renew its charter for the upcoming school year and also will close in June, said Dot Clark, director of charter schools and home education.

Imagine Middle School has only four teachers and two academic coaches teaching 46 students, most of whom are economically struggling and considered at risk. School district staff met with parents in January to talk about enrolling students in other neighborhood schools and the school district’s Summer Bridge program, Clark said.

Most are on waiting lists for fundamental and magnet school programs, Imagine Principal Carolyn Wilson said.

“We’re assisting the students and they’re making learning gains, but even with tutorials on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays ... we couldn’t make the gains set by the state,” said Wilson, who came to the school last year. “This year compared to last year I see that there’s a change in the culture to a focus on academic excellence, but that really should have been a greater focus all along. That’s why we’re here.”

Gulfcoast Academy serves 344 high school students. However, earlier this year the school’s executive board notified school district attorney David Koperski that it would not attempt to renew its operating contract. The graduation rate at Gulfcoast was 7 percent last year.

Grego said that by the board’s meeting on April 15 he would like an idea of how the school district might take over Gulfcoast, as well as add an adult high school for older students.

“Things are actually starting to level off there, and I don’t want to see these students lost or disrupted,” Grego said. “I think we could do a better job.”

If the school district adopts the school, there could be an opportunity to tie in existing career training and drop-out prevention services for students and place them in jobs after they graduate, said executive director of career, technical and adult education Dave Barnes. About 20 students at Gulfcoast are adults, and a majority of others haven’t been attending on a regular basis.

Other schools up for discussion Tuesday were University Preparatory Academy in South St. Petersburg, Pinellas Academy of Math and Science in Clearwater and three dropout-prevention charter high schools that each have a graduation rate of 10 percent or lower.

The Pinellas Academy of Math and Science in Clearwater opened for the 2012-13 school year but is looking for its third principal after two were fired. The current principal is interim, Clark said.

The school, which earned a C from the state in its first year, has had issues meeting the district’s requirements for special education classes and keeping track of student attendance.

Several students were registered at both the Pinellas Academy and a Hillsborough County school. It was discovered the students withdrew from Pinellas Academy several months earlier and still were being marked present, Clark said.

University Preparatory has been under media, parent and school district scrutiny since opening this school year but with new leadership now “has the will to succeed,” Clark said. The school has lost about 100 students, going from about 450 to 360, has had issues retaining special education teachers and has had a negative bank account for the past two months, Clark said. Darius Adamson, a former regional superintendent in Atlanta, took over as principal in January with new administrators and is working closely with the school district, Clark said.

Adamson said he’s confident the school will earn an A grade from the state within a few years, and it has a waiting list of students.

“I don’t think the challenges we’re facing aren’t anything unique. They’re what’s to be expected when you have a first-year charter school,” Adamson said.

“Academically, we’re focusing on laying the foundation for 2014-2015 since we got here so late, but already our culture and climate has changed dramatically. The good thing is we have FCAT coming up in two weeks and that will give us a good baseline of where we need to work.”

adawson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-9851

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