From the Ledger, by Melissa Green
Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson said he doesn’t have enough information to make a decision on whether to allow the Polk County School District to open its at-risk charter schools.
Lake Gibson, Haines City, Kathleen, Lake Region, Tenoroc and Winter Haven high schools have been chosen as sites for the at-risk charter schools based on student performance at each. Mulberry High also was selected as a site but the opening is being delayed.
Robinson became involved in the matter after Superintendent of Schools Sherrie Nickell asked him during his Monday visit to Polk County what was causing the delay.
Nickell said the seven proposed schools have not received school identification numbers to start recruiting students and to hire staff, and the district has been waiting since February for the designation. After looking into the issue, Robinson said he has questions of his own.
Among his staff’s concerns is the need to see the level of interest from parents and potential teachers. Charter schools typically are driven by parental choice, he said Thursday during an interview with The Ledger.
Charter schools in Florida receive identification numbers after “seeing if there’s parent interest or educator interest by hosting information sessions,” he said. “While I’m not saying the ID doesn’t help the process, the absence doesn’t stall gathering parent, teacher and student support.”
In addition to understanding the interest, Robinson called the School Board’s approving its own application for the seven charter schools a “unique situation.”
“As a result of that, we want to make sure we understand what they are trying to accomplish and what is their intent,” he said.
After further review of documents associated with the district’s request, Robinson said he hopes to have a resolution.
If the district received an answer from Robinson within the coming days or weeks, it would not be enough time for the charters to open when school starts Aug. 20, Nickell told School Board members at a special meeting Tuesday. District officials would have to wait until January.
The delay has prompted a recommendation from School Board lawyer Wes Bridges to request public records from the Education Department. Some board members proposed suing the state agency.
The Step Up Academies would be the first time the district creates its own charter schools, according to the district.
The purpose of the schools is to help kids catch up on credits, to re-enroll in high school and to find success, according to plans for the school.
Each of the charter schools would be run by newly hired teachers, and each would have about 150 students the first year, beginning with ninth and 10th grades. Students would be in small, personalized learning environments.
While the application was proposed by the School District and was prepared in conjunction with the School Board, the charters will act independently from the School District, said Carolyn Bridges, the district’s senior director of magnet, choice and charter. Bridges said the district has no problem fulfilling the education departments requests because district officials know the interest is there for the charters.
“There is certainly no shortage of children interested in getting back on track towards graduation,” she said.
For instance, Lake Gibson High has 122 applications so far.
But in earlier conversations with board members this week, Carolyn Bridges said giving the Department of Education application information was a challenge because the principals haven’t done any recruiting. She said that is still true for some principals because they didn’t want to make a promise to a potential student if they wouldn’t be able to open the charter school. She only learned about Lake Gibson’s interest level Thursday.
She also responded to criticisms that the charters wouldn’t have accountability and the district didn’t consider other options of serving the at-risk students. In earlier interviews with The Ledger, State. Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, said she worried about the district charters having oversight and was concerned that the district saw a charter format as the only option to serve the students.
Stargel, who is a member of the House Education Committee, said the district could serve the population in the form of a career academy, which is a program and not an independent charter school.
While career academies would work for some dropouts, it is not the option to serve all at-risk students, Carolyn Bridges said. As a charter, the district could have flexibility and freedom in the way it hires staff and how it schedules classes, she said.
Because the Step Up Academies would be considered as alternative education schools, the schools would be rated as improving, maintaining or declining rather than be assigned traditional school grades from the state. Changes in charter law address what happens when charter schools fall into either the D or F categories, but do not address what happens if schools fall into alternative-education grading, Bridges said.
To ease the concerns of the Department of Education and others, Carolyn Bridges said she is preparing an “assurances page” that both the School Board and the charter school governing board would sign. It states that if the charter school receives an evaluation of declining, the district would treat that designation the same as it would treat a charter school that earned a grade of F.
[ Merissa Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7547. ]