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Leaders of high-profile charter school make a case to stay open

Brooks-DeBartolo principal Phildra J. Swagger, left, president Derrick Brooks and Jorge Valiente, a Brooks-DeBartolo board member, make the case Wednesday for keeping the school open to the Hillsborough School Board.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Brooks-DeBartolo principal Phildra J. Swagger, left, president Derrick Brooks and Jorge Valiente, a Brooks-DeBartolo board member, make the case Wednesday for keeping the school open to the Hillsborough School Board.

TAMPA — The principal of one of the county's most prominent charter schools touted her academy's accomplishments Wednesday, saying the Brooks-DeBartolo Collegiate School is not a sinking Titanic.

Principal Phildra J. Swagger spent the afternoon describing successes not reflected in test scores to the Hillsborough School Board, which may have to decide the low-performing school's fate next month.

"We do great work and have great kids," Swagger said. "I expect great outcomes."

But it was low Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores that forced Swagger and one of the school's founders, former Tampa Bay Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks, to meet Wednesday with board members.

Brooks-DeBartolo, which opened in 2007 as a college preparatory school serving high school students, received a D grade in 2008. That was down from a C in 2007.

The drop led school superintendent MaryEllen Elia to review the contract with the school, one of 27 charter institutions in the county. The contract states that the district may sever the partnership if school performance declines.

Over the past several years, the district has closed 15 charter schools for various reasons, many for failing grades, said school district spokesman Steve Hegarty.

"If their performance continues to deteriorate, we expect the superintendent would recommend that they close," Hegarty said. "However, we don't think that is going to happen. We expect they are going to make progress."

Charter schools are publicly funded entities run by educators, businesses, community groups or nonprofit organizations. In return for greater accountability, they're given flexibility from many regulations.

The hope is they'll spur innovation and competition, and ultimately bring better results for kids.

State law requires districts to give a charter school 90-day notice of its intent to terminate a contract, said board attorney Tom Gonzalez. That's why Brooks-DeBartolo was given an opportunity to plead its case.

The school board is waiting on this year's FCAT scores to determine its next step. Those results are expected to be released next month.

"We'll be on pins and needles," Swagger said. "But we're confident the students will represent us and the district well."

Brooks said the scores do not tell the entire story about the impact the school has had on its students, many of whom come from low-income homes.

Among the school's highlights: the 2009 valedictorian is attending the University of Florida on a full scholarship and plans to become a lawyer; students have secured more than $450,000 in college scholarships; about 75 percent of the student body attends after-school events, such as FCAT prep sessions; and the school has a 91 percent attendance rate.

"I think we've done the best we can," Brooks told the board. "Throughout the process, we've been a provider second to none, in my opinion."

The board overwhelmingly expressed their support for the school, with board member Jack Lamb saying: "The FCAT is a four-letter word."

"Mr. Brooks, you have taken on a tremendous challenge," said board member Jennifer Faliero. "What you have done in three years is remarkable."

Those sentiments were echoed by a parent who came out to support the school.

Brian Butler, a communications consultant with two children at Brooks-DeBartolo, said teachers there push students to reach higher.

"You have kids at this school who are looking to go to college," he said. "At different schools, they're just trying to graduate. It's changing kids' lives."

Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or nguyen@sptimes.com.

Leaders of high-profile charter school make a case to stay open 05/26/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 27, 2010 12:08am]
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