ST. PETERSBURG — The teenagers tapping away at keyboards in the cubicles have stories.
Austria Fowler was arrested at her last school. Daryl Gilyard was kicked out. Leandro Gjoni dropped out.
But at Life Skills Center charter school, each of the 18-year-olds believes, they've gotten another chance to achieve, to behave, to earn a high school diploma.
On Tuesday, Life Skills administrators will fight for a second chance for the entire school as they try to persuade the Pinellas County School Board not to shut it down.
District officials fear successes are too rare at the 375-student school. Life Skills' graduation rates have fallen short in four of the five years it has been open: an average of 12 percent compared with 37 percent at a district-run alternative school.
The school also has among the state's lowest Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test participation — too low, in fact, for the school to get a grade.
"Those are real jarring numbers," Pinellas testing director Octavio Salcedo said.
Counters assistant principal LaSilas Fisher: "We're graduating the kids who were told they never would."
It's a tug-of-war between numbers and emotions.
"This school helps a lot of people in ways that other schools can't," said Gilyard. "Like me. I don't have any other options."
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The room is divided into cubicles and computers. Teenagers with headphones plugged into their ears work through polynomials and geometric calculations. One girl reads a passage from Moby Dick then clicks to the next page.
You wouldn't know by the quiet buzz that these kids have reputations. They're the ones who don't come to school, who talk back, who get taken from campus in handcuffs.
"What's the point?" Fowler thought most days at Lakewood High School when a teacher called on her and she didn't have the answer. She skipped school, caused trouble and got arrested before realizing something in her life had to give.
Now, Fowler is within days of completing the credits she needs to get her high school diploma — the first in her family to do so.
Using computer-based curriculum from Apex Learning, Life Skills students tackle courses at their own pace, working through study guides and quizzes every day. Teachers monitor students' progress, answering questions when the kids encounter trouble.
"They eliminate the miscellaneous," said Johnson Vilayhong, a 20-year-old graduate now enrolled at St. Petersburg College with dreams of entering medical school.
As a junior at Northeast High School, Vilayhong had lost almost all academic interest. He missed about 20 days per semester before he decided to withdraw in 2007 and work a series of odd jobs, painting houses, working in restaurant kitchens.
Vilayhong ran across information about Life Skills online and enrolled in March 2009.
In a matter of months, he accumulated enough credits to graduate. Now, he maintains a 4.0 grade point average at SPC, volunteers at St. Anthony's Hospital and manages family-owned rental properties.
"I got my head straight, I have a goal in mind, I know how to get there," he said.
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Principal Phynedra Franklin says the criticisms of the school are unfair, given the demographics of its student body.
Most of the students are over 18, too old for traditional high schools. Plenty come in reading on a fourth-grade level.
The state uses a graduation rate formula that examines the numbers of students graduating within four years.
Students at Life Skills, Franklin argues, turn to the campus precisely because they haven't been successful elsewhere — many have been out of school for two years and have no chance of graduating within the four-year requirement.
And as far as the numbers of students taking or passing the FCAT?
Franklin and Fisher say that just getting the kids to campus during the state-mandated standardized testing is a struggle. With a small population, a few absent kids equals a large percentage loss.
"The FCAT scares these kids," Fisher said. "It absolutely scares these kids."
State law requires publicly funded schools to administer the FCAT to 90 percent of their students. Life Skills has fallen far below: 62 percent and 69 percent in the last two years.
This year, after getting a warning from the school district, Fisher and Franklin said, some of the school's 22-person staff drove to students' homes to pick them up for testing.
Franklin said more than 90 percent were tested this year.
"It could be true," Salcedo said when asked about the figure.
But the district won't be able to confirm that until the state releases its results this summer.
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Pinellas County hasn't forced a charter school to close, according to state data.
The board voted in 2005 to close Athenian Academy in Dunedin due to governance concerns, but reversed its decision.
Dot Clark, who oversees the district's 12 charter schools, noted that Life Skills' founders knew the population they would be serving. "In their application five years ago, they said they can do this," she said.
Life Skills' Ohio owner, White Hat Management, bills itself as the "third-largest" for-profit charter school company in the country and has been targeting dropouts since its founding in 1998.
Today, it has 50 schools in six states, including 36 Life Skills campuses — 10 of them in Florida.
Earlier this month, a Life Skills campus in Winter Haven narrowly escaped closure after Polk County school officials expressed concern that the company was not spending enough money in the classroom. After hearing students' appeals, the district agreed to a one-year contract.
Another Life Skills in Lakeland was shuttered in 2009 after board members voted not to renew its charter, concerned about its low graduation rate.
An investigation there also found that the charter school inflated its attendance numbers and received $101,000 from the state for students it didn't have.
Cynthia Foster, a business analyst for Life Skills Centers of Florida, said ultimately the school wants to reach an agreement with Pinellas County about using data in a way that more accurately reflects the school's population while conforming with district standards.
"I don't think the school is making a statement of, 'We've done everything right,' " she said. "Let the measurements be reflective of the true population and let's acknowledge what we can do better and do it."
The school board will hear the charter school's appeal Tuesday but isn't expected to make a decision until May.
While the discussion may focus on statistics and figures, Life Skills students who credit the school with giving them a fresh start hope their testimonies won't be ignored.
"I wouldn't see myself where I am without them," said Vilayhong.
Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8707.