School Board to weigh charter school expansion

Athenian Academy should wait to add sixth grade, administrators say. But parents disagree.

Published April 17, 2007

NEW PORT RICHEY - Lara Sowa has a message for the Pasco School Board: Keep an open mind.

The superintendent's staff might have some arguments against allowing the Athenian Academy to add sixth grade, Sowa acknowledges. But parents of the 12 fifth-graders at the charter school have some compelling reasons to let the expansion move ahead when the vote comes tonight, she says.

"It's a really good opportunity to learn two languages while in elementary school," says Sowa, whose daughter, Taylor, attends the Athenian Academy, which teaches some classes in Greek and Spanish. "Because there aren't very many children, they spend less time on discipline and they have more time for personal attention."

They get the private school feel for the public school price. And they'd like it to continue.

"We just really want this to succeed," said Barbara Smith, who sends her three children to the school. "I don't know what the issue is. They don't seem to like charter schools in Pasco County."

School district officials have taken a tough stance on charters over the past few years. They have fought to keep new operators out of the county if they were not satisfied the schools would do well financially or academically, taking one recent case all the way through an appeal to the state Board of Education.

They also have pressed to shutter charter schools they found to be performing below acceptable standards. The Richard Milburn Academy, threatened with probation, decided not to renew its charter; the Language Academy is fighting to remain open.

District leaders, who have seen at least one local charter financial scandal, say it's a matter of accountability. The Athenian Academy, they say, has not adequately screened children to see if they need services because English is not their first language, and it has not enrolled as many children as projected, which could lead to money problems.

The school's leader, additionally, is running a sister school in Pinellas County.

"While we believe the Athenian Academy of Pasco has shown real promise, it would be prudent for the school to take another year to work through some of the compliance, staffing and financial issues they have faced before expanding," writes Nancy Scowcroft, the district's charter schools supervisor.

The parents, who met Monday for a strategy session in advance of today's School Board meeting, say the district is "making Himalayas out of molehills."

They understand, for instance, that their principal is running the Tarpon Springs sister school, but that's just until the summer. They also see the school working to improve its program for English language learners.

And they don't want their fifth-graders to lose an opportunity just because the school district wants Athenian Academy to iron out some kinks.

"My biggest thing is finding good education for the kids," Sowa says.

Her daughter's assigned middle school, Seven Springs, is just too crowded and impersonal to give that, she contends. Her alternative to the charter school is homeschooling.

Smith says she will consider private school for her fifth-grader, William.

"I hope they just listen to everybody before they make a decision," she says, "and really see the possibilities for that school."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com 813 909-4614 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4614. For more education news, visit The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

If you go

School Board to meet tonight

The School Board meets at 6 p.m. at the W. David Mobley Building, 3 North, Boardrooms at 7205 Land O'Lakes Blvd. in Land O'Lakes.