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Plato hopes for easier second year

The Greek-themed charter school is working to recover from dwindling enrollment, internal difficulties and parent complaints.

By ADRIENNE P. SAMUELS
Published June 11, 2005


CLEARWATER - A local charter school with a host of problems is trying to right itself after a year of disappointments and internal strife.

Plato Academy, at 401 S Old Coachman Road, opened last August to much fanfare with plans to teach Greek and traditional subjects to pre-kindergarteners through third-graders.

But its 75 students had dwindled to 32 by November 2004. The principal was fired. Several popular teachers quit or were let go. Parents pelted the Pinellas County School District with complaints. The chairman of Plato's board of directors volunteered to work as interim principal. The school spent all but $146 of a $250,000 start-up grant.

The Pinellas County School District, which oversees charter schools, says high turnover, parent complaints and general confusion can be expected at first year charter schools.

Statewide, many charter schools have fallen short. Intended as alternatives to traditional public schools, many have run out of money and, a state audit found, the schools are not held accountable for student performance.

"It's not unusual for charter schools to have first-year start-up problems," said Steve Swartzel, one of four Pinellas schools officials working on the charter school oversight team. "It takes a year to figure it out. You don't know what you get into until you get into it."

Fast forward to this spring, when former Plato principal Tina Wilson sued the school for violating Florida's Sunshine Law by not providing her with minutes from Plato board of director meetings.

The school was found guilty because no one from Plato attended the court hearing. That's because the summons went to Mike Servos, a member of the Panhellenic Federation of Florida, who was on vacation at the time, said Plato interim principal Steven Christopoulos, 47, of Safety Harbor. The Federation handles Plato's business matters.

The case reopens in July. Plato officials say they will be there.

Plato's story thus far brings to mind Athenian Academy, a Dunedin-based, Greek-immersion charter school that nearly shut down this spring because ofissues similar to those plaguing Plato. At least two people involved in the Plato disagreements - Wilson and Servos - worked with Athenian.

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Christopoulos, originally from Greece, doesn't have formal school management experience. A real estate investor, he is Plato's board chairman and is running the school like a business. He took over last November and is interviewing potential principals for the 2005-06 school year.

Passionate about Plato, he has offered $32,000 of his own money to pay school rent and says he fixed the school's $150,000 deficit while enrolling 86 children for the upcoming school year.

The school district says it's okay for a noneducator to run a charter school.

"It was either shut the school down or take drastic measures," Christopoulos said. "We've made huge progress."

Christopoulos and his board claim Wilson overextended Plato's finances. At an April board meeting, he spent 46 minutes reading aloud dozens of complaints allegedly filed by parents and former teachers. Christopoulos questioned Wilson's purchases of computers, cameras and overhead projectors. He said Wilson signed contracts, hired and fired people without permission. A videotape of the meeting was given to the Times.

Wilson's activities prompted several parents to remove children from the school, he said.

Wilson, who worked with Pinellas County schools for 10 years and was principal for a time at Athenian Academy, was not present.

Wilson's lawyer, Christine Pejot, says comments made about Wilson were defamatory. The school won't give her a copy of the tape, she says, because it was filmed by Christopoulos wife, and therefore private. As of Friday, typed minutes of the meeting were unavailable.

Pejot questions the validity of Christopoulos' assignment.

"(He) nominated himself as principal," Pejot said. "He's both chair of board of the school and also the principal. There's a direct conflict ..."

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Pinellas school officials say they investigate all complaints filed against charter schools and Plato Academy is no exception.

It was unclear how many complaints school officials have received about Plato, but several parents told the Times the school has had problems with bullying and discrimination against non-Greeks.

"All the parents were promised things, and they never gave them," said Patricia Edwards, of Clearwater, who removed her son from Plato after she found he was not given the specialized speech classes. She says her child was bullied during lunch.

Cynthia Christian, of Dunedin, said her 5-year-old son had six different teachers in four months.

Deborah Alexander, of Clearwater, pulled her son out of pre-kindergarten in April. Alexander, an African-American, said she complained to the Pinellas school district that Christopoulos made racially unflattering remarks to her about her son.

"He told me that we have enough minority students in the school," said Alexander, a rehabilitation supervisor for the state Division of Blind Services.

Eventually, Alexander said, the district suggested she remove her son from Plato.

Christopoulos said he did not discriminate against any student.

"We are open to everybody," he said. He said the majority of the school's students are non-Greeks.

Senia Gramajo, a Plato parent, said her Hispanic son has experienced no problems there.

"I really have not noticed anything at all," said Gramajo, who describes herself as being of mixed heritage. "Believe me, my son is my only son ... parents with just one child are a little more particular about how their child is treated."

Plato Academy must complete an audit next fall, which should reveal if there are major problems, the school district said.

Swartzel, with Pinellas County schools, said Christopoulos is doing the best he can. High turnover is expected once parents and educators learn charter schools are no cakewalk.

"Sometimes they find out the charter school is not right," Swartzel said. "If it's not meeting their child's needs, they can withdraw and put them in another school."

Adrienne Samuels can be reached at 445-4157 or samuels@sptimes.com