Sunday, February 25, 2018
Education

MacDill commander backs planned charter school

TAMPA — In an unusual move, a group that wants to open a charter school at MacDill Air Force Base pitched its proposal Tuesday to the Tampa Bay Times' editorial board.

"What we're trying to do is change the way we support our families," said Air Force Col. Scott V. DeThomas, the base commander and a father of two who endorses the idea.

"This is one of the methods that we think we can improve on and ensure that we maintain the highest level of retention and recruiting and make sure that our families get the absolute best care when they're in Tampa."

The planned school, called MacDill Charter Academy, would serve 875 children in grades K-8. Its application is among more than a dozen up for review in the Hillsborough County School District's increasingly busy charter office. A staff recommendation is expected in early December, in advance of a Dec. 10 School Board vote.

Advocates say the school will improve the quality of life for hundreds of families who live off-base and send their children to neighborhood schools in Brandon and beyond.

Those parents can enjoy time with their children while they commute to the base, DeThomas said. If a child needs to go to a medical appointment on the base, the parent won't have to sign the child out of a school 10 or 20 miles away.

Unlike prior generations, DeThomas said, today's military families are under enormous stress from frequent deployment. "Ninety percent of our servicemen and women know nothing other than being at war," he said.

Hillsborough has 43 charter schools, which receive state funding but operate independently of the school district. Enrollment is growing by about 20 percent a year compared with the statewide growth rate of 15 percent.

MacDill Charter would enter a community now served by Tinker Elementary School, a K-5 school that has earned an A grade nearly every year since 2000, and test scores well above the district and state average.

The group said they have no complaints about Tinker — but it does not have the room to accommodate the thousands of military children who live off-base.

Students in the middle school grades, which also would be served by the charter, are zoned for Monroe Middle, a C-rated school with test scores below the district average. Fewer than 20 percent of middle school-age children from the base attend Monroe, DeThomas said.

In its 475-page application to the district, school leaders say they can offer an extra measure of sensitivity to military families who typically move every two to three years.

"My son? Six schools in eight years," DeThomas said. "My second-grader? This is the first time she has gone to the same school for two years in a row."

Welcome programs and buddy programs would help new students feel at home. A student services coordinator on staff would address issues involving family stress and deployment. The school would have a student military club, and information related to the military on its website.

Although DeThomas cannot submit an application for a charter school, he said the law does allow him to assist with the request as part of his role of helping meet the needs of base families. The high-profile support is also atypical for most charter schools, which usually work behind the scenes with district staff.

The school would be run by Charter Schools USA, a for-profit, Fort Lauderdale company that operates three other schools in Hillsborough. Attorney Stephen J. Mitchell, who is working with the group, said he has met with superintendent MaryEllen Elia but she did not take a firm stand one way or another.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]

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