Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Education

Pasco charter school for students with autism heading toward approval

LAND O'LAKES — The Pasco County School Board is preparing to approve its second new charter school application in as many meetings.

The district staff has recommended offering a charter to the Florida Autism Center of Excellence, which proposes opening a school in east-central Pasco. If the School Board approves the charter next week, the center would start next fall with prekindergarten through fifth-grade students.

Earlier this month the board approved Classical Preparatory School, another charter school. It rejected one other applicant. A fourth pulled out.

A year ago, the district got 11 charter school applications and approved just one, which has yet to complete a contract. In the past five years, the district closed more charter schools (two) than it opened (one).

Only five charter schools are running in the district.

Board members said they support the underlying concept of charter schools. But having been burned by bad actors — fiscal mismanagement and theft at the shuttered Deerwood Academy still resonates — they want to ensure proper vetting of each applicant before authorizing any.

They keep such issues in mind as well when considering whether to renew each charter school's contract. Two come up for consideration in June, while one is negotiating now.

The Countryside Montessori charter is working with a 120-day extension that board members have said will be its last, while attempting to settle terms relating to priority student admissions.

"We follow the process of having the district committee that thoroughly analyzes the applications and then send them to legal review," said School Board member Allen Altman. "We follow the recommendations of the committee and the legal staff."

Board member Steve Luikart said charter schools have their place, and he sees the best chances of success coming from those with community ties.

"When you take large corporations that are in it more for the money than for the students, that is the biggest concern," Luikart said.

Last year the School Board encouraged its administration to make it easier for all applicants, but particularly locals, to get answers about their applications so they don't get snagged on technicalities.

"That's what we have been doing," Pasco County charter schools supervisor Nancy Scowcroft said.

She had praise for the Florida Autism Center of Excellence, which would be run by Orlando-based Quest Inc. The group rescued a struggling charter school for students with autism in Tampa after that school's original management firm looked to pull out.

Quest, a nonprofit organization, narrowed the Tampa school's focus and improved its finances and academic services. As a result, the school doubled its enrollment and saw its parent complaints disappear.

"I don't get any phone calls from the school," said Jenna Hodgens, Hillsborough charter school supervisor. "The first year I was getting 10 a week."

Quest vice president Tom Porter said his group looked to expand into Pasco County because of demand.

"We have had a number of parents up in that area contact us about (whether we are) going to have a school in that area," he said. "The incidence of autism has increased over the last five to 10 years, to where 1 in 88 children is diagnosed with autism. There is a big need to serve them."

Scowcroft said Quest overcame several hurdles that hampered previous applicants seeking to open a charter school for students with autism. A key move, she said, was the group's pledge to fully fund the school each year.

"It provides guarantees that the school is financially viable," Scowcroft said.

Porter said the Florida Autism Center of Excellence in Pasco will aim to break down student goals and objectives into small pieces for students to make daily progress. If parents are interested, they can call (407) 493-5571.

Some past Pasco charter school applicants have chosen not to pursue that path again. Emile Laurino of the Center for Independence in Hudson is one.

The center proposed a charter to help students with special needs ages 18-22 transition to the workforce. The nonprofit hasn't given up the concept. It has simply abandoned the charter school idea.

"We're looking to start a private school instead," he said. "With all the hurdles we had to jump through, this could possibly be better for the individuals we are looking to serve."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected]

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