Christy Richard of Riverview gave glowing reviews to her son's experiences at two Hillsborough County public schools. But, Wyatt, 13, is going to try a charter school this school year. He is headed to Bell Creek Academy.
Richard said Bell Creek is convenient, a short walk from her home. But, she also loves the warm reception she gets from the staff and its pledge to give Wyatt, a seventh-grader, a quality education and coursework help, if needed. Also reassuring, she said, is that Valrico Academy students have earned good marks on the FCAT, the state's standardized test.
Another plus, she said, is the school's focus on math and science, two of her son's favorite subjects.
"I think it's going to be better," Richard said. "I think the curriculum is going to be better."
Years ago, parents did not have many education choices for their children other than the local public school or pricey private school. But, in recent years, charter schools have swooped into the education umbrella, offering students plenty of options.
This school year, 42 charter schools will educate nearly 14,000 students in Hillsborough County.
With four more charter schools opening to serve SouthShore children this month, the number of charters in the area will rise to 12.
Last school year, some area schools lost hundreds of students to charters, including Eisenhower Middle (240 students), Giunta Middle (213), Ippolito Elementary (196), Riverview Elementary (158) and Rodgers Middle (137).
District officials track these trends, in part, because when students switch to charters, it affects their operating revenues. By their calculations, charter transfers caused $68 million to leave the district last year.
The number will likely rise this year, especially in the SouthShore area.
Charters, which are tax-funded, tuition-free but independently operated, have promised everything from a stronger curriculum, to a math and science focus, to individualized learning plans, to helping kids with learning disabilities.
But in the process, they must follow state standards, such as administering the FCAT to students. Critics have called for more accountability on the state level to guard against charters more interested in profits than education.
For now, charter schools are approved by local school districts and must enter into a "contractual relationship" with the school district, according to Jenna Hodgens, supervisor of charter schools for the Hillsborough district. They can be sanctioned or shut down.
"We have the responsibility for oversight and monitoring," she said.
They will have more to monitor this year with Riverview becoming a hot spot for charter schools. The Tampa-based Pepin Academies is opening a campus in Riverview. Kids Community College and Valrico Lake Advantage Academy boosted their Riverview presence with new schools.
Winthrop Charter chose Riverview for its two schools, constructed in 2011 and 2012. And, LLT Academy in Tampa will open another school. The campus is just a few miles west of Riverview.
The area was underserved with charter schools when Charter Schools USA made the decision to build Winthrop Charter, a K-8 school, said Richard Page, executive vice president of development. The school quickly filled, prompting the construction of a second building. Still, he said, there are more than 1,000 students on the school's current waiting list.
"Parents very much like our education model and our school design," Page said.
The Pepin Academies, based in Tampa since 1999, sought a location in Riverview due to demand. The charter school is renting a building to house third-graders to seventh-graders on Lake St. Charles Boulevard, near U.S. 301. It is a short-term home. School officials want to find a 10- to 15-acre site in Riverview to house its second campus. There are about 685 students enrolled at Pepin.
Why south county?
"That's where we get a lot of applications from," said Crisha Scolaro, a Pepin co-founder and community liaison.
The Pepin Academies is geared for students with learning disabilities or learning-related disabilities, such as autism and attention deficit disorder.
Scolaro said Pepin is unique because it educates, nurtures and also provides tutoring, speech and language services, and nurses on staff. There are clubs and sports programs. And no bullies to worry about, she said. Pepin also offers a standard high school diploma.
"We have everything in-house," Scolaro said.
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In 2011, Valrico Lake Advantage Academy moved from a small campus in Valrico to a sprawling new building on Boyette Road, near Bells Shoals Road in Riverview.
This school year, Valrico Academy will house kindergarten through fifth grade while its sister school across the street — the new Bell Creek Academy — will open for sixth- through ninth-graders, said Bell Creek principal Steve Blinder. A third campus will be built in 2014 to solely house ninth- through 12th-graders.
Blinder comes to Bell Creek with 30 years of teaching experience in the public and private sector, most recently in Jacksonville. This is his first charter school job but he is certain Bell Creek is going to be a great learning environment for children. He is proud to say the school is an architectural masterpiece on the outside and packed with state-of-the-art equipment on the inside.
"I can't wait to show off this building," he said.
Valrico Academy and Bell Creek focus on science, technology, engineering and math. However, Blinder said it is a school for any child, not just those who are naturally talented in those areas.
"Our focus really is getting kids to think like scientists," he said.
More than 600 students have signed up for the Bell Creek Academy. Another 650 will attend the elementary school.
Blinder said area parents are lucky to have so many options — public, private and charter. But he added: "Parents have to choose what fits their kid the very best."
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Winthrop Charter principal Terry Johnson agrees. He does not see other charter or public schools as enemies. Winthrop Charter has its education model and that suits many families.
He thinks other educators — public, private and charter — feel the same way about their schools.
"It's a friendly competition," Johnson said. "We want to see kids be successful."
While not in Riverview, the nearby LLT Academy in Tampa is also making room for more students by adding an elementary building. LLT's middle school, just a few miles west of U.S. 301 and Bloomingdale Avenue, is jammed with students who hail from Seffner to Apollo Beach.
LLT, which opened its middle school in 2005, decided to move into elementary education for two reasons — deficiencies they see in some sixth-grade students and requests by parents, said Lesley Logan, its principal and co-founder.
Logan said elementary schools tend to focus on math and reading, putting other subjects, such as science and history farther down the importance ladder. She said her elementary school will work hard to teach all subjects, so students will have a smooth transition into middle school.
Parents, Logan added, are thrilled they'll be able to send their elementary and middle school children to the same campus. Logan said she is happy to see LLT branch into a K-8 facility, but promised the larger campus won't lose its small-school feel.
"We know all of our students," she said. "We know all of our families."
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This month, Kid's Community College moved its International Baccalaureate elementary school from a small building in another part of Riverview to a new campus on McMullen and Balm Riverview roads. It is the first charter IB elementary school in the county.
KCC is a longtime charter school provider in Riverview, educating students from preschool to eighth grade. Its main campus is on Mathog Road, near Gibsonton Drive.
Michele Pruitt, a spokeswoman for KCC, said the IB charter school will continue KCC's goal to educate with a focus on the child.
"They literally look at your child. How does your child learn? Then, they teach," she said.
But, the IB program will also include an education from a world perspective, she said. Students will learn to question, explore and discover.
KCC started in 2003 as a preschool and grew to include elementary-, and middle-school students because parents liked the education model and begged for more grade levels, Pruitt said.
"It was the request, the demand of parents," she said.
KCC's education model may please many families but its request for additional dollars irked some who complained to the county school district.
Pruitt said some misinterpreted the request for an enhancement donation of a few hundred dollars. Some interpreted it as a bill. It is voluntary — not required. Pruitt said KCC officials have made it "absolutely, positively clear" in letters to families. The school will have a consumables fee for its parents, which covers the cost of supply list items, uniform kits, curriculum supplements such as workbooks, activity fees, supplemental technology materials, science lab materials and physical education supplements.
Initially, the school district threatened to close the charter over the matter. But, then the school system gave KCC a one-year renewal and will monitor the charter.
Pruitt said KCC did nothing wrong. She said KCC's leaders and many parents are disappointed by the district's decision.
"That's not acceptable," she said. "We're high performing in every way. It's not fair. We deserve to have a 10-year renewal."
Hodgens said parents can call the school district if they have any questions about extra costs at charter schools.
"There should be no fees unless they are reasonable fees similar to any public school fee," she said.
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While charter school enrollment is rising, public schools in Hillsborough County educate many more — nearly 200,000 students.
Hodgens said parents often choose charter schools because they have smaller campuses or specialize in something parents want for their children. She said parents should review the school before enrolling their child — whether that is public, charter or private.
"I absolutely see it as a parent choice," she said. "I don't see them as any better than the public school district."
Hodgens noted just like the school district loses some students to charter schools, charter schools also lose some students when they decide to return to public schools.
"There's fluctuation between the district and charters and charters and district," Hodgens said. "There's definitely movement."
Hodgens didn't have statistics on how many students return to public schools. But, she said, it happens for many reasons.
Sometimes, the charter school doesn't have resources comparable to a public school. Occasionally, parents are surprised they don't have as much input as they thought they'd have at a charter school. And, sometimes, the parents who shipped their kids to a charter school to experience a smaller campus discover they made a mistake.
"They find it's too small," Hodgens said.
Richard, the parent who will try a charter school for the first time, hopes Bell Creek will be such a great fit that her son Wyatt will be able to move the tassel on his high school graduation cap from right to left. If it doesn't work out, she'll find another school.
"There are tons of options," Richard said, laughing.
This article has been revised to reflect the following clarification: Kids Community College, a charter school in Riverview, has set in place a consumables fee for its parents, which covers the cost of supply list items, uniform kits, curriculum supplements such as workbooks, activity fees, supplemental technology materials, science lab materials and physical education supplements.
Monica Bennett can be reached at [email protected]