DADE CITY — Scott Durham has spent 11 years as an educator, but he didn't fully appreciate charter schools until he took a teaching position two years ago at Academy at the Farm in Dade City.
"It's a school that truly focuses on the need for each student and what's best for kids," Durham said.
He's so impressed with the charter school movement that he has proposed opening one. The Quest Academy would focus on healthy lifestyles and environmental lessons as part of the regular curriculum, serving up to 250 students in north-central Pasco.
It's part of the largest crop of charter school applicants in a single year in Pasco since the advent of charters in the mid-1990s. Seven groups have submitted letters of intent to apply by the Aug. 1 deadline, with a couple of more having called to express interest, district charter school supervisor Nancy Scowcroft said.
Pasco County currently has five charter schools in operation.
Durham senses a building demand for more, pointing to the long waiting lists for Academy at the Farm and Dayspring Academy in New Port Richey as proof.
"The more parents I talk to, they just aren't happy with the (traditional public) schools," he said. "We mention that we're thinking of doing this, and it's amazing how many people say they're right on board with us. I just don't think there's such a thing as too many of these."
State lawmakers have taken just that stance. This year, they approved legislation that makes it easier for charter schools to win approval to open and then to remain open, as long as they maintain high grades.
They also funneled more construction money into charter schools, which have complained in the past about not having adequate funds to open a building and to expand as demand grows.
Gov. Rick Scott, who made increased school choice a key part of his education plan, signed the bill into law without complaint.
"I think we're probably going to get more," Scowcroft said. "I attribute that to the position of the governor and the changes in statute."
Emile Laurino, chief executive officer of the Center for Independence in Hudson, said his group is proposing the CLASS Project to gain the credibility that comes with being a public school.
CLASS would serve about a dozen students, ages 18 to 22, who have disabilities and qualify for public education beyond traditional high school age.
"Going the charter school route, we believe we will be held to a little bit of a higher standard," Laurino said.
The need, he suggested, is evident for the type of student CLASS would serve.
"I think we can do a different job than what the school district is doing with our population," Laurino said. "I really believe at 18 years old you are going into adulthood, but by having them still in a high school setting, they are still looked at as children. We are trying to get away from that."
Mark Jordan, who started two charter schools in Plant City (one graded A this year, the other a C), is helping coordinate plans for Freedom Academy Elementary in Zephyrhills. The school, which would use the arts to infuse math and science, aims to open with 188 students.
Parents in the area want more options, he said.
"They don't have any charter schools at all in Zephyrhills," Jordan said. "It would be nice if the families in Zephyrhills had a choice."
Freedom is looking at a church site to open. So, too, is Quest. Both operators say they would like to take advantage of existing space that isn't used on weekdays, to avoid further construction if possible.
Durham noted that many charter schools fail because of financial struggles. Saving money will be critical, he said, mentioning that he has local businesspeople on the school's board of directors, which is budgeting for less money each year.
"We are looking to partners to make the cost less," he added. "That's huge."
The School Board has 60 days to act on the applications it receives by Aug. 1. Those that win approval could open in 2012.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.