Hernando's lone charter school applicant on fast track

BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County is still a frontier of sorts when it comes to charter schools, with just one in a district of roughly 23,000 students.

That was looking to change recently when three organizations submitted letters to the Hernando school district announcing their intent to apply for a charter to open schools here in time for the 2012-13 school year.

But when the Aug. 1 deadline arrived, only one group had applied.

That was from the founders of the already successful Gulf Coast Academy of Science and Technology in Spring Hill. The corporation is seeking a new charter to open Gulf Coast Middle School in the fall of 2012.

The science-centered curriculum would be identical to Gulf Coast's existing middle school on Tillery Road in Spring Hill, and the schools would share the same board of directors, said Joseph Gatti, director of curriculum and development.

The Spring Hill school would start its first year with 88 sixth-and seventh-graders who would filter into the eighth grade, and the enrollment would increase to 110 students by the second year and hold there for a few years.

Gulf Coast has an extensive waiting list and students who aren't picked in the admission lottery are turned away, said director of administration Nevin Ray Siefert III.

"To keep the small class sizes and the individualized attention that make our school special, we have to replicate it so we can offer it to more students," Siefert said.

The Gulf Coast board had planned to build the school in the Orchard Park area of Spring Hill but pulled its request after neighbors objected. Now the organization has a contract on 6 acres of undeveloped land that was part of the former Pasco-Hernando Community College campus on Spring Hill Drive. PHCC moved its Spring Hill campus to a new site on U.S. 19 last year.

Gulf Coast's application will be on a fast track. Gov. Rick Scott, a staunch supporter of charter schools, signed into law last May a measure that allows "high-performing" charter companies to increase enrollment and open more schools without going through a lengthy approval process.

To achieve high performing status, schools must earn an "A" in the state's accountability system twice in three years and a clean audit for the last three fiscal years.

Charter schools are public schools that operate under a performance contract that frees them from many regulations created for traditional public schools. The schools are still held accountable for academic and financial results.

One of the other two letters of intent came from the iGeneration Leadership Academy, based in Hollywood, Fla. The school for grades six through 12 would provide "individualized and personalized educational paths … through a blended model of virtual and campus attendance," chief executive officer Kin Griffith wrote.

The goal was to open next year with as many as 300 students. By 2016-17, the school would add grades three, four and five and have 1,500 students.

The company put out feelers in several Florida counties to find founding board members and came up short in Hernando, Griffith said. The plan is to garner more support in the coming months and submit an application next year. In the meantime, Griffith said, the company will focus its efforts in the three counties where it did submit applications: Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough.

iGeneration's model of computer-based instruction on an actual campus sounds a lot like the new approach at the district's Endeavor Academy in Brooksville. Formerly the STAR Center, the school will still serve at-risk youngsters with behavioral issues but also seeks to attract a more diverse population of students who would benefit from online courses.

There is plenty of room here for similar schools, Griffith said.

"I think having a choice is always a good thing for the student," he said. "Two schools that have similar blended models will have different cultures."

The third letter of intent came from Coastal University Academy Inc., which planned to apply for charter for a middle school serving a minimum of 250 students. The letter provided no other details.

Christopher Bibbo, the Coastal representative who signed the letter, is a former Hernando County teacher who works as a guidance counselor at Nature Coast Technical High School in Brooksville.

He declined to comment on the school except to say the group decided it wasn't a good time to move forward with the effort.

Conspicuously absent was a letter of intent and application from the group that applied last year to open Hernando's first fine arts charter school.

The plan for the Infusion! School of the Arts had called for a yet-to-be-determined Spring Hill location to serve students in grades six through 12, offering programs in dance, drama, instrumental music, vocal music and the visual arts, with possible additions later. The artistic disciplines would be incorporated into the core curriculum.

The district's charter school application review committee recommended that the School Board deny the application, citing concerns about flawed enrollment projections, an incomplete budget and service to exceptional students. The day before the board was slated to consider the application, Infusion president Merritt Tilson announced the group was withdrawing its application to address the committee's areas of concern and re-submit the application this summer.

That was still the goal until about May, said Scott Tilson, Merritt's husband and an Infusion board member. But as the education funding picture grew ever darker for the state, the board decided to put the effort on hold, Scott Tilson said.

"We know the product is viable, we know the need is essential," he said. "We'll just have to see how things go."

Though the Legislature and governor are supportive of charters, the gloomy economy and cuts to education funding can be daunting challenges for fledgling efforts, Hernando superintendent Bryan Blavatt said.

"It's a scary thing," Blavatt said. "Not only the declining size of our economy but also the declining size of our community."

Tony Marrero can be reached (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Hernando's lone charter school applicant on fast track 08/11/11 [Last modified: Thursday, August 11, 2011 9:00pm]

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