A weekend interview with the new head of Academy Prep in St. Petersburg
This past week Gov. Rick Scott signed a number of education bills, among them expanding the state's corporate tax credit scholarship program that provides private school vouchers to low-income public school students. Academy Prep Center of St. Petersburg is among one of Pinellas County's private schools with the most black students using tax-credit vouchers. The school has a new leader after the abrupt departure of DeVere Beard, 40, in March. At the time school officials said they could not publicly discuss personnel matters. St. Petersburg Times correspondent Sylvia Lim spoke to Leanne Bayne, who has been at Academy Prep since 2000, about her new role as well as the new legislation expanding the state’s private school voucher program. Academy Prep serves fifth- to eighth-grade students, and operates 11 hours a day, 11 months a year and six days a week.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am originally from Trinidad. I came the United States in 1996 to get my education. I attended Eckerd College and got degrees in visual arts and Spanish. I found out about Academy Prep in my senior year in college. I have a friend who is in the Americorp program at the Prep. I visited the school in 2000, and I was interested in coming on as an Americorp teacher. I did that in May of 2000. It was also the first year they introduced girls to the campus. When the school opened in 1997, for the first three years, there were only boys in the program. I was an Americorp position for one year, and I absolutely fell in love with the school and decided that I wanted to join the staff full time. So I decided to go to the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg to get a masters in elementary education. …At that point, I was working full time and pursuing my education part time and it took me four years to get my masters education. That was grueling. I have been at the school for 11 years at this point. I was the dean of students and I was a lead teacher. We’ve had quite a few turnovers, and the last head of school left right before spring break. I stepped into the position in the end of March, as acting head of school. On June 1, I was officially made head of school.
What are your plans for Academy Prep?
I think one of my initial goals is to really bring back some consistency in our programs. Just naturally, not to say we have gone away from the model, we have been successful regardless of the high leadership turnover. We have 85 percent of our students graduating from high schools, and 65 percent of those graduating from college. I want to bring the consistency back into our day-to-day operations. I also want to bring back the trust to our families and communities. Our main goal this year is, we are going to focus strongly on reading and writing. With our students coming in from surrounding public schools, their reading and writing skills came in below par. Our students are coming to us two sometimes three levels below grade level. Having small class sizes – our goal is to have 15 to 17 students as our maximum class size – means we can give our students the individualized instructions that they deserved. We know we are being successful, we just want to continue to make sure our model and our mission is consistent with what we started years ago.
What have vouchers have done for your school so far?
You know, we do support that program because it cost $15,000 to $16,000 a year to educate one of our students. Our students are eligible for the voucher program, we really could not do it without that support. We think it is important that parents in our communities have that choice to make instead of just having a public school option. We are grateful that parents are able to send their children to our school with that assistance because we can’t rely just on fund raising. We are looking at $11,000-12,000 that we still have to raise for a student. We have always had to rely on fund raising, but with that support it makes it easier. It’s not just for tuition, but to help enhance our programs and for us to remain competitive with the best private schools in the nation. …About 77 to 78 percent of our kids got the vouchers in the past school year. Our goal is to have 100 percent of our students to be on the Step Up vouchers.
Do you anticipate having more students apply to your school because of the new law?
I think we do have quite a few students who are on our waiting list right now. Step Up for Students (the agency that administers vouchers to students) changed their application dates. We usually have the whole summer to help our parents apply. This year the deadline was May 21 for new students. Unfortunately, if new applicants could not get in before that date, we could not enroll them for this 2011-12 school year. …Unlike public schools, our summer program runs from June 13 and (ends July 1). It is mandatory for all our new students and our rising students to join the summer program because that is where we begin our new curriculum. Also, that is the pool that we will be selecting from for the fall. We have better success with our renewals but our recruitment was cut a little short.
Critics argue that the voucher program needs more accountability, and that it takes away support for the public school system. What do you think about that?
I can understand why there has been a lot of controversy. We hold ourselves to such a high standards… We have been successful so I feel we have earned our rights to accept those vouchers. We support the public school system but parents, regardless, should have the choice to send their kids to a public school or private school and they should not be limited to one option especially if the schools in their neighborhoods are not succeeding. If I were a parent and if I have a choice to put my children in a classroom with 30 kids or a classroom with 15 kids, I want to have that option. Our population comes from low-income families. We like the idea that their kids receive extracurricular activities like golf, tennis or the arts, that they would not get at a public institution or they would not have the time or opportunity to take their kids to on their own. It’s not just the academics, we go so far beyond.