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A.T. Jones charter school is officially closed

TAMPA — The children at A.T. Jones were learning science, technology and Mandarin Chinese.

Now they're learning about unexpected change.

The Hillsborough County School District on Monday revoked the charter for the school, which opened in its latest incarnation two years ago.

An estimated 180 children are affected, said superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who urged parents to contact the district's choice office for other options.

A.T. Jones Math, Science & Technology Academy suffered from financial problems almost from the outset.

Twenty-two children were deemed too young for kindergarten in early 2011.

About 35 left the school between October and February, teachers and directors said. Some, who drove their children from as far as Pinellas and Pasco counties, complained of high gas prices, or a change in the parents' employment.

Fundraising suffered as board members resigned because of illness, job loss and other personal reasons, according to a detailed letter from the Rev. Arthur T. Jones, the school's former chairman. Parents were more than $17,000 behind in payments to the before- and after-school day care program, he wrote, forcing the school to absorb that cost as well.

What's more, board member Bob Morrison said, state funding was never sufficient to give students the features that distinguished the school, such as technology and Chinese.

"If we had just stayed with the core curriculum, we would have had a very different cost model," Morrison said.

In April, the district flagged the school for lapses in record-keeping, a deficit fund balance of $121,132, and complaints from vendors who said they were not being paid. Elia wrote that she would recommend the district end its contract.

The school, named for the pastor of Carrollwood's Bible-Based Fellowship Church, dates back to the 1990s, when it was a faith-based private school.

But it foundered with the recession and closed in 2009. When it reopened as a charter — a type of school that operates with limited oversight from the school district and funding from the state — its emphasis shifted from faith to science.

The district approved A.T. Jones' charter in April 2010 despite reservations about its marketing plan. Early projections called for a student body of 322. By the end of the year, it was 200, Morrison said.

Monnie So, who taught kindergarten through second grade and Mandarin Chinese, said it was a well-run school where at least half the parents were active participants in their children's education.

At an assembly every Friday, called "The Hub," children would be recognized for what they had learned the rest of the week.

"You would see a kindergarten child showing a PowerPoint to 300 people," she said.

"They were not shy about standing up in front of 300 people and holding the microphone. Children would explain what they had learned about butterflies, and how their butterfly was different from all the other butterflies. These are just examples of what they learned."

The school's leaders said the students out-performed their peers on five of eight standardized tests.

"We never called our students students," Morrison said. "They were scholars from day one."

The school received a C grade this year from the state.

Board members have pledged to pay all outstanding debts. As to whether the school might one day reopen, Morrison said such a move would require financial commitments from at least two business partners.

"These are hard economic times," principal Brenda Kearse wrote in a letter to the school's families.

"For now, this is a dream deferred. The seed of the dream will live within your child as you continue to nurture the greatest within them."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@tampabay.com.

Families whose children were attending A.T. Jones, or who had planned to attend, can call the school district's Choice office at (813) 272-4692 for other options.

A.T. Jones charter school is officially closed 07/31/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 31, 2012 12:25am]
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