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Opening of Charter Schools May Be Delayed

Merissa Green, The Ledger (Lakeland, FL)

Opening of Charter Schools May Be DelayedBARTOW -- Although school district staff says all is in order for a January opening of Step Up Academy charter schools for at-risk students on six high school campuses, some school board members and John Stewart, the new interim superintendent, aren't ready to proceed.

During a Polk District School Board meeting Tuesday, Stewart, who came onboard last month, said he questions whether this is the best way to serve low- performing students who did not do well on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and whether it is the best use of taxpayers' money.

"It will have serious review from me," Stewart said.

The schools' purpose would be to help students catch up on credits, to re-enroll dropouts in high school and to help students find success, according to nearly identical plans filed for the charter schools.

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Staff from the district's Office of Magnet, Choice and Charter conducted on-site pre-opening site visits to determine whether the Step Up Academy charter schools were ready, and the sites received favorable nods, said Carolyn Bridges, the senior director of the office.

Based on student performance, Lake Gibson, Haines City, Kathleen, Lake Region, Tenoroc and Winter Haven high schools were chosen as sites for the at-risk charter schools. Each of the charter schools would be run by i{newly hired teachers, and each would have about 150 students the first year, beginning with ninth- and 10th-graders. Students would be in small, personalized learning environments.

Preliminary enrollment numbers show Tenoroc and Lake Region have signed up fewer than 50 students each. School Board member Debra Wright pointed out that the budgets for each of the schools were based on 150 students.

"Somebody is going to have to pay that bill," Wright said. "There is a lot of pressure for these kids to come through the door, but they are not coming. I just don't think we should put them into something that is not ready."

Wright recommended the board wait until the 2013-14 school year to open the Step Up Academies. Wright said she also had a problem with the academics and the structure of the charter schools.

Stewart agreed with Wright.

"This was a ready, aim, fire project," Stewart said. "Yes, it (the planning) is working in a couple of places but it is not working in other places."

School board member Hunt Berryman questioned the plan to have school board members serve on the charter schools' governing board, saying it may be a conflict of interest because the district is tasked with oversight of charter schools.

The state Commission on Ethics found that setup would be legal according to a report by the school board attorney's office, board member Hazel Sellers said, adding that serving on the charter board would be voluntary for district school board members.

Berryman remained unconvinced, saying even if it is legal, there is an appearance of conflict of interest. "We need to stand above everyone else," he said. "I think it is a conflict. I think the charter school boards are intended to be independent."

Originally targeted to open at the beginning of this school year, the charter schools' opening date was delayed after the state Department of Education raised concerns about the level of interest from parents and potential teachers.

Once those issues were cleared and the charters were approved by the state, the School Board had approved a new target date of January.