TAMPA — Woodmont Charter School, an F-rated elementary and middle school, is advertising on television for more students.
The 30-second cable spot shows children listening attentively, raising their hands, working on computers and romping through the playground.
But it doesn't mention the school's grade.
"I'm not going to advertise that Woodmont got an F," said Colleen Reynolds, spokeswoman for Charter Schools USA, which manages the school. "But I don't think we overhype it either."
The ad, nevertheless, is just the type of thing that stirs up critics of charter schools, which use tax dollars but are run independently of government districts.
"The state goes out of its way, as it should, to inform parents of the grades and the achievement of schools," said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association, a federation of teachers unions.
"But it's not quite a level playing field when someone can put an ad on TV, and you know it's not going to say anything about the grade."
Woodmont, with 650 students at its campus in Temple Terrace, is well below its enrollment target of 913.
Reynolds would not say how much the for-profit Charter Schools USA spends on the ads, for competitive reasons. But although Woodmont has a marketing budget of $74,500 that comes from public money, she said the company is underwriting the entire cost.
"It goes back to doing the right things for children," she said. "We never, ever, ever skimp on something students need in order to pay for marketing."
The commercials are not as expensive as some might think, Reynolds said. A 30-second cable spot can run from $18 to $45. And, as the school is struggling, she said the company is forgoing the 10 percent of revenues it can take for administration.
Charters, which have been around about 20 years, are growing by about 15 percent a year in Florida and 20 percent in Hillsborough.
Because of those numbers, School Board members in Hillsborough, which lost $68 million in state funding to charters in 2012-13, are discussing the growing need to showcase the district's schools and programs.
The debate extends far beyond the district and state. In Pennsylvania, school districts have responded to aggressive charter advertising with billboards, television and Internet ads and cash bonuses to lure students back.
When asked if Hillsborough should consider television, board member Candy Olson said that doesn't seem likely. "But I would never say never," she said. "We certainly need to be aware of how we can get our message out."
The message, at Woodmont, speaks to individual attention.
"Expect more from your school," the announcer says. "More caring. More commitment. More success." Many schools see students as numbers, the voice continues. "Woodmont Charter School sees your child."
Launched in 2011, Woodmont sought to have 79 percent of its students score at least a level 3 — considered proficient — on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in reading.
But, as happened at a lot of schools under stricter scoring standards, the reality was not so rosy. Between 40 and 53 percent of Woodmont's students scored 3's in 2012. In 2013, when the test became even tougher, 27 to 36 percent reached proficiency.
The F grade — down from a D in 2012 — is one reason superintendent MaryEllen Elia gave for opposing Charter Schools USA's proposal for a school at MacDill Air Force Base.
Reynolds said it often takes two to three years to raise school grades when a school is based in a disadvantaged community. At Woodmont, 83 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
Principal Steven Epstein, who also opened the popular Henderson Hammock Charter School in Citrus Park, said Woodmont contends with many of the same issues as district-run schools in lower-income communities.
Parents, who are often single, work long hours. Getting them involved takes time, he said.
Like district-run schools with low grades, Woodmont is seeking to improve performance through a longer school day and tutoring sessions on Saturdays.
"I don't think the grade represents who we are," he said. Among other things, he said, the school provides a second chance for students who did not have good experiences at district-run schools. "A lot of parents say, I just want to try something different,' " he said.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]