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Teachers apply for charter

The Powell Middle School employees want to open a charter school. Their goal is smaller, more specialized classes.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 4, 2002


SPRING HILL -- Powell Middle School teacher Joseph Gatti, who earlier this year broke free of 5 1/2 years of sexual abuse charges against him, now seeks to escape some of the traditional rules that govern Florida's schools.

He and fellow Powell teacher Nevin Siefert II have proposed to open a charter middle school, Gulf Coast Academy of Science and Technology, in the 2003-2004 school year. Gatti would be curriculum director, and Siefert would be the lead administrator.

Their charter proposal is the second to come to the Hernando County School Board this year. Deerwood Academy, based in Pasco County, also has proposed a middle school. These are Hernando's first two charter applications.

Charter schools, which number about 250 across Florida, offer alternatives to the mainstream public school system. They set their own curriculum, discipline code and other rules and do not have to follow all the state education regulations.

But they are public schools; and the students must meet state education requirements, including passing the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

Gatti and Siefert said their school would have only 20 students per classroom, with 100 students to begin. It would offer 4 1/2 hours weekly of core subject instruction, compared withthe usual 3 1/2 hours in traditional middle schools, and students would have weekly field trips for hands-on studies.

"Our school is going to have the number of students which will allow program-based experiential learning," Siefert said.

Each study trip would have lessons that cross the subject matters, he said. For instance, a trip to the Weekiwachee Preserve could generate scientific analysis of water samples, research about watershed and sinks, writing assignments, spreadsheet studies and more.

The county offers many opportunities for science projects, with more in the immediate surrounding region, Gatti said.

"It's virtually untapped around here," he said. "Ask a middle school student when was the last time they went to the Chinsegut Nature Reserve."

Rather than using tests as the primary method to evaluate students, the charter would use portfolios. Smaller class sizes also would allow the school to help students with learning problems, Gatti said.

"We can work with that child who has problems with reading, just so long as they have an interest in science and technology," he said.

The school would be located at Lamson Avenue at Tillery Road, across from Sherwood Forest Nursery. Startup costs are estimated at $150,000, with a first year budget set at about $537,000.

Parents and students would be expected to sign a behavior agreement. The school would seek to draw students from within a 4-mile radius of the site, and to make transportation arrangements with the school district and parents.

Several parents sent letters of support to the School Board. Some are founding board members.

"Due to the tremendous recent growth in this county, which has seriously overcrowded our schools, a school of this nature is not only a good idea, but to help alleviate these issues, a necessity," wrote parents William and Wendy Fairhurst. "We believe this is being developed with excellent vision for the future and very much look forward to a positive outcome in this charter school proposal."

"To be given an opportunity to learn at a charter school is now a vision to be implemented in this county," Sharon R. Cook wrote. "HOORAY!"

Gatti said he did not anticipate any problems in winning approval for the school. He said his past problems are over and that the allegations were disproved.

"I don't think that's a factor," he said.

He figured that board members have said they would support a viable charter proposal, and further they have expressed a need for a science and technology school.

"I don't see any reason why they would backpedal on their beliefs," Gatti said.

Superintendent Wendy Tellone said she had not thoroughly reviewed the Gulf Coast Academy charter proposal. The Deerwood Academy proposal came in first, she said, meaning the School Board has less time remaining to consider it than Gulf Coast Academy.

"We're taking one at a time here," Tellone said.

The School Board has 60 days after it receives a charter proposal to approve or deny it. If the board rejects the school, it would have 10 days to provide a detailed explanation. The applicant could appeal the decision to the state.

The board will have a workshop on charter schools at 4 p.m. Tuesday. It will follow a 3 p.m. workshop on the Robert R. Moton Early Intervention Center.

-- Jeffrey S. Solochek covers education in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solochek@sptimes.com.

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