ST. PETERSBURG — As the director of a new charter school aimed at low-income minority children, Cheri Shannon has made all the right moves.
She lined up local leaders to recruit families. She advertised at community centers and blanketed certain ZIP codes with postcards. She secured a prime location — Southside Fundamental Middle, a public school shuttered four years ago on 10th Street at 17th Avenue S.
With two months until the new school year starts, Shannon is poised for one of the biggest-ever charter openings in Pinellas County. An extensive interior renovation is under way at the old school, and University Preparatory Academy, as it will be called, already has attracted more than 400 students for its elementary and middle school.
That's not far from its first-year goal of 550 students. And even if it falls short, University Prep would be much larger than most of the county's 21 charter schools.
"We're very hopeful and excited," Shannon said.
In some ways, University Prep has chosen the perfect moment to open.
Imagine Charter School in St. Petersburg just closed its elementary wing, putting more than 200 students in need of a new school. The closest neighborhood schools — Melrose and Maximo elementaries, both F rated, and D-rated Campbell Park Elementary — are high-poverty, high-minority schools with chronically low test scores.
All three schools had dramatic drops this year in many of their FCAT scores, despite various interventions. Melrose and Maximo had incentive pay for staff, while Campbell Park and Melrose had an extra hour a day of reading instruction.
Shannon is recruiting from those school zones with the help of prominent leaders such as Goliath Davis, former St. Petersburg police chief, and former state Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg. Davis and Heller started the Learning Village of Pinellas Inc. a couple of years ago to create more charter seats for black students.
So far, Shannon's efforts appear to be paying off. Students have been coming from Melrose, Maximo, Campbell Park and Imagine, she said. The largest enrollment, so far, has been in the fourth through seventh grades.
"We get a lot of calls every day," she said.
Dot Clark, who reviews charters for the district, said nothing prevents a charter school from targeting traditional public schools, even if enrollment is low. The district draws the line, though, at recruiting within the schools themselves.
"Just like they wouldn't want us to recruit in their schools, we wouldn't want them to recruit in ours," she said. "It's a fine line sometimes."
In this case, the School District sold Southside Fundamental to the charter school. Pinellas also has an obligation to try to create 500 new charter school seats in predominantly black neighborhoods as part of a 2010 settlement in a lawsuit on behalf of black students; that doesn't mean the district had to approve a particular charter, however.
Neither Davis nor Heller has a formal role in Shannon's company, University Preparatory Academies Inc. Both are volunteers, Shannon said. Davis has focused on recruiting because he's "very well-known in the community," she said.
Davis declined to comment.
Heller said there's a strong desire for another school option in south Pinellas. He remembers a public meeting held a couple of years ago by Concerned Citizens for Quality Education for Black Students to gauge interest in opening a charter.
"The emotion that was in that room of people who wanted something good for the kids, you couldn't get away from that," he said, adding: "My bottom line is, 'Is it good?' "
The answer remains to be seen. Imagine also enrolled a low-income, high-poverty population, but never found success. The school earned three F's in four years and was forced to close for the 2013-14 school year.
Heller said he thinks University Prep will avoid those problems if it gets strong community support and well-known people on its advisory board.
Shannon will spend much of the next few weeks hiring teachers and administrators. She most recently worked for the Florida Charter School Alliance and said she believes her charter will succeed because of its college-prep focus. She is modeling it after University Academy in Kansas City, a kindergarten to 12th grade school, where she was superintendent for four years. The school, with a mostly black enrollment and a high poverty rate, boasts a 96 percent graduation rate among black students. On the Missouri Assessment Program, that state's version of the FCAT, most students earned scores considered either basic or proficient, the middle of four performance categories, last year.
University Academy had a longer school day and year as well as gender-segregated classes. Shannon plans to use the same strategies and hopes to open a high school in two years.
"The goal is not graduation from high school but graduation from college," she said.
Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8846. Follow her on Twitter @Fitz_ly.