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Six new charter schools to open

By Erin Kourkounis
Published: July 20, 2014
Village of Excellence Middle Principal Cametra Edwards asks a question at the elementary campus while the middle school is renovated.

TAMPA — A middle school where students will learn Mandarin Chinese, an alternative high school for students who need help getting back on track, and a course of study conducted entirely online are joining the roster of Hillsborough County charter schools.

These and three others are slated to open next month in Hillsborough County, bringing the number of charter schools in the school district to 47. The six new institutions were approved by the Hillsborough school board in December from among 14 applications.

With just a few weeks left until school starts Aug. 19, the charter schools’ leaders are busy hiring and training teachers and staff, putting finishing touches on renovations and registering students.

“There’s no down time in the summer,” said Jenna Hodgens, Hillsborough district charter schools director. “We work very closely with them. We want them to be successful.”

More families than ever are opting to enroll their children in charter schools. At the beginning of the 2013-14 school year, 13,827 students were enrolled in Hillsborough charter schools, which are privately run and publicly funded. That’s 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, 40 have either closed or never opened. Reasons for the 22 closures include governance issues and low enrollment, as well as academic or financial troubles.

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When parents and students at the Village of Excellence charter elementary school wished for a middle school, the governing board listened.

“They wanted additional alternatives for middle school,” said Principal Cametra Edwards, who will oversee both the elementary school and the new Village of Excellence Middle School.

The elementary, located on North 46th Street in Tampa, opened 15 years ago. Today, it serves 250 students, most of whom would otherwise attend Title 1 district schools — those that receive funding from the federal government because a large portion of students come from low-income families.

In August, the new middle school will open to a maximum of 154 sixth- and seventh-graders at a separate campus a block away from the elementary. Eighth grade will be added in the school’s second year.

Like the elementary school, Village of Excellence middle will be focused on three essential ideas — a collaborative community, the best teachers and 21st-century skills.

“There’s a strong emphasis on technology,” Edwards said. “We provide each student with laptops in our middle school program.”

The middle school is also working with the University of South Florida to launch a program through which each student will learn Mandarin Chinese.

A staff is in place for the middle school and about 75 students have registered so far, Edwards said. The new building is being renovated, so teachers are attending three weeks of professional development at the elementary.

A second middle school, Lutz Preparatory Middle School, will serve a projected 154 students and will be the sister school to an already existing Lutz Preparatory elementary. The school has 148 middle-school students in the school district’s system, Hodgens said.

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Two new charter high schools are opening this fall. One will serve as a dropout-prevention alternative high school, and the other will have a heavy technology focus and aims to have students graduate with an associate’s degree and a high-school diploma at the same time.

Town and Country Charter High School, at 7555 W. Waters Ave., will be the third Hillsborough school be run by management company Accelerated Learning Solutions, with a local governing board overseeing and making decisions.

The other two, Seminole Heights Charter High School and West University Charter High School, also serve at-risk students. At those schools, about 70 percent of the senior class graduated last school year. So far, about 50 students have registered to attend the new school, which has a capacity of 400.

“We’ve had students bullied at other schools or just did not make the social connection,” said Executive Principal Bobby Smith, who oversees all three schools. “Because of that, they felt they needed a different setting. Our schools are really more like you’re attending a small community college. It’s a very quiet, almost serene setting. It’s a nurturing environment.”

Joanne Redden is tapped to be principal at the new campus, and a 16-member staff is already in place. Both Redden and Smith are retired school district administrators.

High-schoolers up to age 21 will be able to move through the curriculum at their own pace in a blended learning environment, where students spend some class time in front of a computer and some in front of a teacher.

“As they master the curriculum, they will move forward,” Smith said. “This is really led by the students’ learning progress. Our end goal for every student is for them to earn an accredited high school diploma.”

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Graduates of Early Career Academy — opening up to a projected 120 high-school juniors this year on the Memorial Highway campus of ITT Technical Institute — will earn associate’s degrees along with their high-school diplomas. So far, 60 students have turned in applications to attend.

ITT Tech, a private college system that offers technology-oriented programs, will also begin managing a charter school in Troy, Mich., this fall.

The Tampa school touts a focus on science, technology, engineering and math, and the academic year will be broken up into 12-week trimesters.

Students will attend classes taught by a mix of ITT Tech instructors and Early Career Academy teachers. The school is conducting interviews to fill five positions — a guidance counselor and English, science, social studies and language arts teachers.

Thomas Gay, executive director of the Tampa campus, left the post Thursday. He would not elaborate about why.

Nicole Elam, a spokeswoman for ITT Educational Services, said Early Career Academy will still open as planned, and the school’s governing board is set to vote to approve a new leader soon.

Also on track to open this school year are a K-8 school with a Spanish language focus and a virtual K-12 school that will be fully conducted online.

Bridgeprep Academy of Tampa is moving into the Greek Orthodox Church building at 2418 W. Swann Ave. in South Tampa.

There, students — an estimated 348 — will attend classes conducted in English and in Spanish.

SMART Management, which will be in charge of day-to-day operations at the school, runs four Bridgeprep campuses in Miami. In addition to the Tampa school, one is also opening this fall in Broward County.

The Jacksonville-based Florida Virtual Academies is adding a Hillsborough charter school for students to its roster.

The group already has established charter schools in Broward, Clay, Duval, Palm Beach, Pasco and Pinellas counties. The Hillsborough school will serve a projected 340 students.

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Twitter: @ErinKTBO