ST. PETERSBURG — Portia Slaughter used three words to describe the situation unfolding this week at the now-closed University Preparatory Academy: Fast and furious and frightening.
On Tuesday, University Prep's governing board voted to close. Within hours, the Pinellas County School Board agreed to open a new, district-run school on the campus with the same students and a new name, Midtown Academy. On Wednesday, district officials named Slaughter principal. And on Thursday, Slaughter met some of the school's families.
Slaughter said the first step was to "retain our babies."
"Please, please, spread the word," she told families.
University Prep was opened three years ago using an old middle school campus at 1701 10th St. S. The new charter school was hailed by many in the community as an alternative to failing neighborhood schools.
But then it earned three consecutive F's and this year some of its test scores were lower than the schools it had competed against. Staying open would have required a waiver from the state.
Despite the problems, many families wanted the school to stay open. District officials also were somewhat leery of sending more than 400 students back to struggling neighborhood schools. So when University Prep's landlord offered the district a rent-free year, Midtown Academy was born.
District officials have less than two weeks to hire teachers and three weeks before students arrive for the first day. Some parents Thursday were nervous that the district viewed this year as a trial run. Slaughter was quick to say otherwise.
"I don't think this is a trial because we're going to make this happen," she said.
Slaughter told parents that she grew up in south St. Petersburg, one of 10 children to a single mother. She was a principal in Harrisburg, Penn., oversaw five struggling schools there as an administrator, and was also an assistant principal at multiple schools in Pinellas County. She also taught at John Hopkins Middle for six years.
Slaughter asked parents and grandparents to tell her what worked and what didn't.
"I want you to shoot it to me straight," she said.
Yolanda Gregory said that she moved her 10-year-old daughter to a private school after the fighting at University Prep last year. Her grandson still attends the school. She had concerns about behavior issues.
Christi Noble, whose 8-year-old daughter attends the school, said she chose University Prep because she didn't like her zoned school, Fairmount Park Elementary, and wasn't accepted into a magnet school. She said students at University Prep didn't have textbooks to take home and asked that homework assignments reflect what the students were learning in class that day.
Noble said she was glad to see the district take over the school. She grew up with Slaughter, as did some other families, and called her a "sweetheart."
"I've been here for three years and it's time for a change," she said.
Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at [email protected] Follow @Fitz_ly.