ST. PETERSBURG — Children are leaving University Preparatory Academy, the charter school that promised to do better than their struggling neighborhood schools.
They are leaving in droves.
Since the school year began, 69 children have withdrawn from University Prep. They are returning to Maximo Elementary, Woodlawn Elementary, Bay Point Middle and other under-performing traditional public schools.
Earlier this month, 20 children left in one week. Eight have left in the past three school days.
Four teachers have quit, along with the school's curriculum director.
A Pinellas County Schools administrator interviewed parents last month, when 23 children had left, to determine whether University Prep was telling families to leave. But parents said they were pulling their children voluntarily. They were concerned about bullying, missing textbooks and other issues.
University Prep has received initial approval to open a school in Tampa next fall, and has explored campuses in Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Cheri Shannon, the school's founder and principal, says the St. Petersburg school with just under 500 students is experiencing "growing pains" typical of a charter's first few months.
But the Tampa Bay Times found that the large exodus is far from typical among Pinellas charter schools, which operate with public money. In addition, the school, which held itself out as a cut above the rest, allowed key provisions of its charter to lapse as it rushed to open in only a few months.
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Goliath Davis does not want to talk about University Prep. "I have not been affiliated with that school in a while," he said. But the charter school in the former site of Southside Fundamental Middle started with him.
Davis was president of the Learning Village of Pinellas, a group looking to bring a charter school for black students to the area. In 2012, he and other activists, including Ricardo Davis, president of Concerned Organization for Quality Education for Black Students, began meeting with Shannon. She had started a successful charter in Kansas City and was looking to Florida.
When University Prep submitted its application, the activists reviewed it and played a vital role, speaking before the School Board on the school's behalf.
Ricardo Davis remembers phone calls from St. Petersburg residents who had heard about University Prep and weren't sure what to think. He told them he trusted University Prep.
A cornerstone of the school's 1,446-page application was local control. It created both a governing board that "will seldom get involved in local decisions" and a local board that would hire the principal, set policies, monitor the budget and address parent and community concerns.
"Local accountability is of primary importance to University Prep," the application reads.
Shannon then filed a clarification. The local board was now responsible for "advising," rather than making final decisions. The contract was approved in April.
"The honest thing is, we haven't seen her since then," Ricardo Davis says. He says she stopped returning phone calls and emails. They went from weekly meetings to no contact. Shannon says this fracture was a "two-way street," that Davis has not reached out to her.
Two months into the school year, the local board does not exist. Shannon says her focus has been recruiting students and renovating the school. She could not get into the building until June.
Then, unexpectedly, she became the principal, in addition to her role as chief of the school's nonprofit parent.
"As we got closer to whether we were going to open or not open, and the clock was ticking and time was running out, I was asked if I was willing to be the head of school," Shannon says.
Tom Rogers, the South Florida-based chairman of the governing board, said he does not remember if it was Shannon's idea or the board's. "We're grateful she was willing to step in."
With the Learning Village group estranged, the local board on the back burner, and Shannon doubling as principal, the governing board was the only other agency besides Shannon involved in running the school.
Craig Sher, former chairman of the Pinellas Education Foundation, is the only Pinellas representative on the governing board. He said he has participated in one phone meeting in the early summer and has never met the other five board members.
He has not spoken to Shannon since the school year began.
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On Monday, Shannon walked the halls of University Prep, calling each student by name as she told them to get to class or asked why they were late. The walls were blank, freshly painted.
"It's hard," Shannon says of opening a new charter school. "It's kind of like childbirth. Lots of challenges, painful moments."
When asked about ties to the community, Shannon spoke of the staff and contractors she's hired from the Midtown area. She talked of parents who love the school, beg her to keep going.
Some students are leaving because of behavior problems the charter inherited from traditional schools, she said. Parents are angry their children were suspended; or their kids behave well, but don't want to be mixed up with fighting children.
Under the school's contract with Pinellas, the local board would have advised on discipline policies and parent concerns.
"Nobody can question the extraordinary efforts of Cheri to run the school," Sher says. "But she may need some help in getting some of these tasks accomplished. . . . Part of it is this 'nobody can do it as well as me,' that sort of mentality."
When asked if she was overwhelmed, Shannon said no.
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Four charter schools opened in Pinellas last year. None had such a high withdrawal rate. In the same time period that 61 children left University Prep, one student withdrew from Plato Academy Tarpon Springs.
Dot Clark is the administrator who reviews charter applications for the Pinellas school system. Told last week that University Prep had not taken steps toward forming a local board, she called the situation unacceptable.
"It's disappointing when we've been assured that the process was happening," Clark said. She then contacted Shannon, who promised to hold the local board's first meeting by Nov. 11.
Jenna Hodgens, supervisor of charter schools for the Hillsborough school system, said her district has approved University Prep's application to open next fall, and could negotiate a contract in early 2014.
Not having a local board "would be a problem for us here," Hodgens said.
Angela Brown does not know much about charter school governance. She just knows her daughter was being bullied at University Prep.
The sixth-grade girl was on a University Prep school bus that crashed. She had a concussion, her mother says. When the 11-year-old returned to school a week later, girls beat her on the head. On another occasion, she was pushed down the stairs.
Unsatisfied with Shannon's response, Brown called police to the school twice. Shannon says she does not recall details of the incidents, but reiterated University Prep's zero-tolerance policy.
Amid conflicting reports, police took no action. Brown withdrew her daughter.
"We were zoned for Bay Point Middle and I knew they were having behavior issues and I didn't want to put her in an environment like that," Brown says. "(University Prep) made it sound like they were going to be better. They said they were not going to tolerate behavior issues. They said they were going to be the best middle school in the area."