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Three charter schools apply to defy tradition

But previous performance and oversight are being challenged.

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
Published October 16, 2007

Kindergarten teacher Melissa Ballard helps Jonny Samarsky, 5, drag a computer image of a drum on an interactive whiteboard at Plato Academy, a charter school in Clearwater. On Tuesday the Pinellas School Board will consider recommendations to create three new charter schools.
[John Pendygraft | Times]
[John Pendygraft | Times]
First grade teacher Christina Tretter asks for the correct answer during math class at Plato Academy.

Riding a trend that has been both promising and controversial, the Pinellas School District will consider approving applications today for three new charter schools.

Two of them- Life Skills Center North Pinellas and Plato Academy North - have counterparts elsewhere in the county. The third, Life Force Arts and Technology Academy, expressed interest last year but withdrew its request.

If the board approves the three applications, the number of charter schools in Pinellas could grow from eight to 11 by August.

"They'll provide innovation and creativity," said Steve Swartzel, one of several district officials on the charter school oversight team. "The board always has been interested in allowing parents as many choices as possible."

The applications the board will consider are these:

-Life Skills Center North Pinellas.

-Plato Academy North Pinellas.

-Life Force Arts and Technology Academy, which would integrate arts and technology with core academics.

While the School Board will be reviewing the applications at district headquarters in Largo, the State Board of Education will meet in Tallahassee to address the growing controversy over whether school districts should continue to have exclusive authority to issue charter school contracts.

"One of the issues," said State Rep. John Legg, a Port Richey Republican who serves on the House Schools and Learning Council, "is this concept that charter schools in some counties could be perceived as competition to the traditional public schools."

Allowing entities other than school districts to approve charter schools could ease some concerns, he said.

Pinellas School Board member Linda Lerner said she was glad to see the charter applications coming before the board and feels no conflict of interest in reviewing them. "I was very leery of charter schools at first, but my attitude has evolved," she said. "I think we have had good luck with these smaller schools."

Elsewhere, the 11-year relationship between Florida school districts and charter schools remains contentious. The state sees them as a legitimate option for families, but critics say that the schools - which get public money but are largely free of district oversight - have produced reading and math test scores slightly lower than traditional schools, according to an analysis released last winter by the state Department of Education.

And while some of Florida's more than 350 charter schools have thrived, nearly 80 have closed. Until recently, nearly 30 percent were running deficits.

Among those that experienced financial difficulty was Plato Academy in Clearwater, for which Plato Academy North Pinellas would be a sister school.

The Clearwater school, which opened in August 2004, spent all but $146 of a $250,000 startup grant, forcing the chairman of its board of directors to work - voluntarily - as interim principal.

Steven Christopoulos, a real estate investor, took over the charter school in November 2004. He says the school has made a complete turnaround since then, which district officials confirm.

Christopoulos credits the success to high-quality academics, strict discipline and parental involvement. "We managed from both the financial and academic respects to climb from the bottom of the well all the way to the top," he said.

Oversight team member Swartzel said Plato Academy's situation is similar to what many new schools, whether public, private or charter, experience in their first-year.

All the more reason, some education experts say, to leave the authorization of charter schools to groups that have more business savvy.

"Some districts don't have the staff to oversee the schools and they're not committed to guaranteeing quality," said Sara Mead, a senior research fellow with the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit public policy institute. "That has been a problem."

Not in Pinellas, says board member Nancy Bostock.

"I know our staff has worked very hard with charter applicants to make sure what they will be offering is good for the district," Bostock said. "I think that shows Pinellas has been responsible."

Staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek and news researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Donna Winchester can be reached at or 727 893-8413.

What is a charter school?

Charter schools are public schools operating under a contractual agreement with the local school board and run by nonprofit organizations. As part of the state's program of public education, charter schools offer innovative programs consistent with educational goals established by Florida law. They are free for students to attend. Teachers work for the school rather than the school district.

Current Pinellas charter schools

Academie Da Vinci, Dunedin: Fine and performing arts curriculum serving 111 students in grades K-5.

Athenian Academy, Dunedin: Greek culture and language immersion serving 129 students in grades K-6.

Plato Academy, Clearwater: Uses the Socratic method to teach 185 students in grades prekindergarten-5.

Pinellas Preparatory Academy, Largo: "Portfolio based" school serving 185 students in grades 4-8.

Life Skills of St. Petersburg, St. Petersburg: Serves more than 400 at-risk students ages 16-21 in grades 9-12.

St. Petersburg Collegiate High School, St. Petersburg: Allows students in grades 10-12 to simultaneously complete the requirements for a high school diploma and an associate's degree from St. Petersburg College; current enrollment: 184.

Imagine Charter School of Pinellas, scheduled to open next year, will emphasize basic reading skills and moral and character education.

Excelsior Academy of Language, scheduled to open next year pending charter approval, will emphasize Spanish instruction.

Proposed charter schools

Life Skills Center North Pinellas would offer up to 500 students ages 16-21 another chance to graduate. Students would work at their own pace with the help of a full-time employment specialist. It would be similar to Life Skills St. Petersburg, a 2-year-old charter school.e_SClBPlato Academy North Pinellas would use Socratic principles and teach Greek to elementary students. Enrollment capped at 464.

Life Force Arts and Technology Academy would offer a multicultural learning environment for up to 245 North Pinellas elementary students.


[Last modified October 16, 2007, 00:34:27]

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