Families at endangered Pinellas charter schools struggle to find alternatives

Parents packed the Pinellas County School Board meeting on May 17, 2016, to ask that their charter schools remain open. Instead, the board voted to close the schools in 90 days if significant changes aren't made. Now many of those parents are scrambling to find new schools for next year. The schools are Windsor Preparatory Academy and East Windsor Middle Academy in St. Petersburg and Newpoint Pinellas Academy in Clearwater.
Parents packed the Pinellas County School Board meeting on May 17, 2016, to ask that their charter schools remain open. Instead, the board voted to close the schools in 90 days if significant changes aren't made. Now many of those parents are scrambling to find new schools for next year. The schools are Windsor Preparatory Academy and East Windsor Middle Academy in St. Petersburg and Newpoint Pinellas Academy in Clearwater.
Published May 20 2016
Updated May 20 2016

Out of curiosity, Erin Tareh entered her daughter into the Pinellas County school choice lottery for a fundamental school in January. It was her second try. Perhaps this time she could get a wait list spot higher than 254.

No luck. Sofia, a 6-year-old currently attending Windsor Preparatory School in St. Petersburg, is hovering in the 400s and 500s on wait lists for six fundamental and charter schools. But now, as Windsor Prep has 90 days to correct its problems or face termination, her mother is running out of options.

"So far right now, my plan is just freaking out. I don't know what to do," said Tareh, a 30-year-old from St. Petersburg who owns Fight Fitness Center with her husband. "She's not getting accepted anywhere this year. I'm 100 percent sure of that."

Parents of students at Windsor Prep and two related charter schools — East Windsor Middle Academy in St. Petersburg and Newpoint Pinellas Academy, a middle school in Clearwater — have been scrambling in recent days to find new options for their children, frantically trading notes on what their contingency plans are should their schools close.

The Pinellas County School Board voted Tuesday to send 90-day termination notices to the three schools. District officials have cited serious concerns over the schools' budgets as well as problems with curriculum and exceptional student education, all caused by a charter school management company, Newpoint Education Partners.

The district recently sent an email to parents urging them to make a new school choice for their children before August.

Together, the three schools enroll 827 students. Windsor Prep, with more than 560 students, is the second-largest charter in the district.

District spokeswoman Lisa Wolf said the student assignment office plans to send a letter to parents to gather feedback on their school preferences. In the meantime, parents can call in and speak to an office representative one-on-one or can apply for a special assignment at a school.

"They're prepared for a large number of families to be calling," Wolf said, although she added roughly a dozen parents have called in so far.

The prime application period for magnet schools wrapped up months ago, and parents are finding that other charter and private schools are at capacity. Many refuse to go to their zoned neighborhood school, saying they are wary of their school grades and discipline issues. Now, they're getting desperate.

"If our kids don't go to Windsor, I'm moving to Seminole," said Chris Bateman, a 40-year-old engineer from Kenneth City who has sons in kindergarten and fourth grade at Windsor Prep. "The only really good school is Seminole or Bauder (elementaries). That's the only other ones I'll put my kids in."

Janet Weidner said she chose Newpoint Pinellas Academy and the accompanying high school for her daughters because of the small environment. Because she works full-time for the City of Pinellas Park and her husband undergoes cancer treatments, it helps that both girls start school at the same time.

The Weidners are zoned for Safety Harbor Middle, which they consider a suitable alternative. But 12-year-old Rachel would rather be homeschooled for a year than start eighth grade at a bigger school.

"It's sad that she's leaving a place where she feels secure, and to leave that and go to a bigger school for one year," said Weidner, 50, from Clearwater. "My daughter's just devastated. I know a lot of other families have that issue."

For the most part, the parents' options are limited. The only magnets seats left are at Melrose Elementary, one of the worst-performing elementary schools in the state; Pinellas Virtual School; and the Center for Gifted at Ridecrest Elementary, which has two first-grade seats open.

Most of the elementary students in the troubled charters are zoned for are Blanton, Pinellas Park, Westgate, Lealman Avenue and Sexton. All have C grades from the state except Lealman, a D school. In addition, those schools reported anywhere from two to 14 disciplinary incidents last school year.

Windsor Prep is also a C school, but reported no disciplinary incidents.

According to a glimpse of 2015-16 results from Florida Standards Assessments released Thursday, Windsor outperformed those schools on the third-grade English-language arts exam. Sixty-nine percent passed the test at Windsor, while the zoned public schools had passing rates ranging from 27 to 56 percent.

It gets worse for middle school. Out of 13 zoned middle schools, most of the kids at the charters are zoned for Tyrone, Meadowlawn, Pinellas Park and Azalea. Half of those have D grades and half have C's.

East Windsor and Newpoint Pinellas Academy have C and D grades, respectively, too, but far fewer disciplinary incidents.

Tareh, the mother of 6-year-old Sofia, said she's considered pricey private schools, other charters, homeschooling, and even moving to North Carolina for a better public school for her daughter. She said she toured her neighborhood school and was turned off by larger class sizes and didn't feel the school was safe.

Not deterred by termination notices, Amanda Greene would like to send her 5-year-old son to kindergarten at Windsor Prep next year.

"This registering for school is very new to me and very eye-opening to me," said Greene, a 30-year-old financial assistant from Lealman. "I think what everyone wants for their child is to drop them off in a safe learning environment where you know they'll genuinely be cared for by the teachers and staff."

Contact Colleen Wright at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright on Twitter.

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