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Public schools offered test of charter status

Hillsborough wants some of its public schools to apply to take on charter designation.

By MELANIE AVE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 30, 2001


TAMPA -- Hillsborough County is looking for public schools willing to shake loose government rules and become guinea pigs as part of the district's new charter status.

The schools chosen would be the district's first converts from traditional kindergarten-through-12th-grade public schools to charter designation.

"What we have strived for through the whole process is getting people to think beyond the parameters of how we do business, out of the box," said Charlene Pirko, Hillsborough's charter school coordinator. "We want to encourage creative thinking."

On Tuesday, the School Board will consider a program to transform a minimum of six schools into charter schools, which would be free of many district and state regulations. Last month, the board okayed the transformation of three adult education centers.

Only two public schools in the state have converted to charter schools, said JoAnn Carrin, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education.

The converted schools are similar to traditional charter schools, except they are run by the school district instead of private companies.

"They just don't start the same way," she said. "But most charter schools are brand-new schools."

Pirko said in Hillsborough about seven elementary, middle and high schools are considering the option for 2002, including Gorrie Elementary School and Durant and Wharton high schools.

They would operate with more autonomy from the school system and would be encouraged to try innovative teaching methods as they become the testing ground for the district's state-approved charter status beginning in the fall of 2002.

Principals at interested schools must apply by March 1 of next year and have the support of 70 percent of teachers and parents. School officials must submit a detailed education, business and management plan to the School Board.

"We'll take a very strong look at what the (school) brings to the district that is different than already provided in Hillsborough County," Pirko said.

Once approved, the school and the district would enter into a contract.

While public schools have been able to convert to charter status since 1996, Pirko said the district hopes its new guidelines will encourage schools to try something new.

In September, Hillsborough became the state's second charter district, following Volusia County, set free from more than a dozen state regulations such as class sizes, teacher placement and alternative education programs. It entered a three-year agreement with the state, which included a district goal of establishing at least six public school conversions.

All schools are eligible to apply to become charter schools, but their principals must be supportive and agree to stay at the school a minimum of two years. Interested schools must agree to increased accountability to the School Board for student achievement and school management. Preference must be given to the pupils normally assigned to attend the school, though students outside the neighborhood could apply.

Hillsborough has 14 charter schools and has approved four others scheduled to open this fall. The schools are operated by companies that provide teachers, maintenance and bookkeeping by using money the school receives from the state based on student population.

The Hillsborough public schools approved for charter status would join the two schools that converted in 1998: McKeel Academy, a sixth-through-12th-grade school in Polk County, and Spring Creek Elementary in Lake County.

- Melanie Ave covers education and can be reached (813) 226-3400 or melanie@sptimes.com.

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