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    Students learn outside charter school

    Trinity School for Children emphasizes real-world experience and parents' involvement.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published December 23, 2001

    [Times photo: Ken Helle]
    Liana Sanchez, 10, left, and Chad Taylor, 11, point to locations for their island community.
    TAMPA -- It's the Tuesday before Thanksgiving at Trinity School for Children, and scores of families are gathered in the open field beside the school. Tables are covered with chicken, fruit and finger foods.

    Parents chat with teachers while they keep an eye on their children playing nearby. The annual gathering has a festive atmosphere.

    In many ways the scene typifies Trinity, a school that believes in togetherness.

    Halfway through its third year of existence, the charter school's unusual curriculum and operating freedom have proved popular among parents looking for alternatives to traditional public and private schools.

    Enrollment from pre-kindergarten through seventh grade, has grown from 211 to 443, with a waiting list of 872.

    What has so many parents lining up to enroll their children in a school that was little more than an idea three years ago?

    Parents cite the intangibles: caring teachers, a family atmosphere and a curriculum that grew out of an experimental school from the turn of the 20th century.

    The curriculum is called Bank Street, after the New York City school that started it. It stresses student involvement in the real world, which means students spend a lot of time outside the classroom.

    And not just for lessons under a tree. Debbie Castro's fifth-grade class will take as many as 15 field trips this year.

    Classroom time is different, too. Castro's students work in groups; each group is called a community, with students managing its assignments. "Each community has a mayor to lead it, a clean-up supervisor, a materials manager, a homework patrol and a community supporter to provide positive reinforcement," Castro said. "Students change roles each week and members are rotated each month.'"

    Communities also are evaluated at the end of each month.

    Tammy Schweiberger, who moved her three children to Trinity from the private Most Holy Redeemer school, says group learning prepares children for the work world.

    How well students work with others is reflected in their grades.

    Schweiberger's choice of Trinity over a private school is not unusual. Sixty-five percent of students left private school for Trinity, most from parochial schools.

    Teachers try not to force lessons, said Trinity principal Madeleine O'Dea. Sometimes classes can take an abrupt turn.

    Students seem to like the approach. "I have more work now, and I'm having more fun," said fourth grader Troy Perez, 9.

    Troy's mother, Michelle, nodded in agreement. She says the difference is the spirit of cooperation.

    Principal O'Dea says school's name reflects that cooperative approach. "Educators, families and the community make up our three-pronged approach," she said.

    The partnership, she believes, is central to the school's mission to build an atmosphere of mutual respect that will foster a desire for lifelong learning and "maximum development" in each student.

    Parental involvement is not just encouraged, it's required: Each parent must provide 25 hours a year of volunteer time.

    Trinity attracts parents and teachers for many of the same reasons other charter schools do. Charter schools -- public schools operated by private entities -- are all about independence.

    This year the school moved into a new, five-acre campus off of N Armenia Avenue in Tampa's Wellswood neighborhood. Plans include new middle and pre-school buildings, an outdoor gym and an enrollment of 525. Class size is capped at 25 students.

    Trinity must meet state performance standards, as measured by the FCAT and Florida Writes. Overall, Trinity test results are about average for Hillsborough schools.

    "I think in another couple of years, our scores will be huge," Castro said.

    Still, she says the focus on learning rather than tests. "Smart means knowing where to go to get the information and wanting to do that," she said. "It's not just making an A."

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