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Charter School Explosion: Doing It Better
(Part 4 of 7)

By Patricia W. Hall

This is the fourth in a series of seven articles regarding Charter schools and their changing relationship to our community.

This week’s article focuses on three of the 42 charter schools in Hillsborough County that the League of Women Voters of Florida Statewide Study included in its final consensus report. Our Hillsborough League, after analyzing all the data available to us, chose to highlight Learning Gate, Pepin and Brooks DeBartolo as good examples of the original mission of charters as incubators of public school innovation. These schools, while extremely diverse in goals, curriculum and student bodies, all emphasize the unique skills and strengths of students by creating inspiring learning experiences to the benefit of all children who attend.

Learning Gate Community School began as a day care center years before charter schools were instituted. In the mid-1990s I trained child care workers who cared for children there with Patti Girard, Learning Gate’s owner. Learning Gate received its charter from the county in 2000. The K-6th graders attend at the Hanna Road campus in Lutz and the 7th and 8th graders are located on the Florida Avenue campus. The mission of the school is to “prepare students to successfully participate in their family, school community and workplace through an education program that promotes academic excellence, develops environmental stewardship and stimulates students to be lifelong learners.” Enrollment for this school year was 801 children and the average teacher salary was $41,186 during the 2011-12 school years (last data available).

While Learning Gate utilizes the natural environment as their laboratory, it is clear that the children are the focus of the curriculum. The large 20-acre facility in Lutz is like no other charter in Hillsborough County and includes a gymnasium, sports field and cafeteria. Nestled among the trees, wetlands and ponds the campus reflects an integrated environmental approach to sustainability for the community and world. Guided by an environmental-resource teacher, students learn about water conservation, world hunger, butterfly gardens, growing and cooking fruits and vegetables, biology and recycling. Their motto, “Nature Is Our Best Teacher,” empowers children to construct their own learning experiences. Each family at Learning Gate is required to volunteer a minimum of 30 hours and attend 10 hours of educational classes. This learning-based parental requirement makes an enormous impact on student’s attitude, attendance and academic achievement.

Like all schools, Learning Gate struggles to obtain the resources to sustain their campus and curriculum. Some of the burden falls on parents who must provide uniforms and transportation for their children. But an active and committed board and a full-time development professional creatively solicit additional intellectual and financial resources. Ongoing partnerships with the University of South Florida provide research opportunities for the children and student interns. Tony Dungy’s children have attended, and he contributed a mobile computer kiosk and iPads for the students.

Pepin Academy started as a foundation to educate students in grades 9 through 12 with specific learning disabilities. It was founded in 1999 with the help of the Pepin family that continues as a prime supporter today. For over a dozen years Pepin has been dedicated to the educational needs of students with identified learning and learning-related disabilities. Pepin now has an elementary, middle and high school and transitional vocational program in Tampa. Additionally, the Riverview campus opened this year for grades 3 through 7. Pepin will expand to Pasco County and to Pinellas in 2015. The recent enrollment was 640 students and the average teacher salary was approximately $42,354 for 2011-12 (last data available). Pepin has a student/teacher ratio among the lowest we found at 12 to 15 students per class allowing for more individualized instruction.

Each of the Pepin Academies “creates a high intensity, low threat therapeutic learning community that celebrates the gifts of every student.” Pepin Academies was the vision of Tampa mother Crisha Scolaro who was looking for an alternative for her son with learning disabilities. She is especially proud that nearly 80 percent of Pepin’s students graduate with a traditional diploma and 20 percent with a special diploma for students with learning disabilities. There is very little data on charter school graduation rates and not many charter high schools statewide.

Two separate boards of directors govern the Pepin schools in Hillsborough and Pasco counties, whose members are required to work or live in the county they serve. In the fall a modified schedule will begin, eliminating long summer breaks with more days off during the school year to enable more continuity of instruction and therapy. Full-time occupational and physical therapists are on the staff.

The goal of Brooks DeBartolo Collegiate High School (BDCHS), opened in 2007, is to provide “a quality education, similar to that of numerous private schools in Tampa, but without the staggering price and to provide a higher opportunity for achievement to students who may otherwise not excel in a large classroom setting.” Ensuring that students don’t get lost in the crowd and are prepared for college work, emphasis is placed on individual guidance, planning and support. The inaugural student body for grades 9 through 11 was 183 students. Enrollment for 2013-14 was 420 children. The average teacher salary in 2011-12 was $34,433, significantly lower than Learning Gate and Pepin, as well as traditional Hillsborough County public schools.

Brooks DeBartolo added athletics in 2008 and has membership in the Florida High School Athletic Association. Students are eligible to participate in Class2A District 10 sports. BDCHS graduated their first class in 2011 with many of their 120 graduates attending colleges in Florida and elsewhere on the East Coast. In 2012, BDCHS moved to the former 11-acre campus of the Universal Church of God just south of Fletcher Avenue on the west side of I-275. The new main building includes 20 classrooms, a beautiful gymnasium, a media center in the lobby, two science laboratories and a cafeteria.

The first principal, Dr. Phildra Swagger, has been replaced by Kristine Bennett. The state Department of Education rated the school an “A” grade for each year since 2010, a major improvement over its earlier D grade. The Tampa Tribune reported on August 17, 2013, that the school was more than $1.1 million in debt last fiscal year according to the Florida Auditor General. It also showed “material weaknesses” in its internal financial controls. BDCHS finished the school year in a stronger financial position after refinancing with Wells Fargo and securing guarantees from the founders.

Examples such as these three schools demonstrate that the unique needs of children can be well served by charter schools that keep children uppermost! One important indicator of this focus is that each of these schools devotes between 50 and 60 percent of its taxpayer revenue to teachers and instructional needs. But perhaps the best indicators are the satisfied parents, students and teachers. In the next article for-profit charter school companies and the schools they manage will be investigated.

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