Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Education

Pasco officials consider new charter school applications

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The owners of a New Port Richey ranch that focuses on therapeutic riding for children with disabilities is seeking to join the ranks of Pasco County's charter schools.

Kiddy Up Ranch has notified the district of its intent to apply to open a charter school that would provide hands-on education with farm animals for children with mild intellectual disabilities. It aims to open in 2014 for up to 40 students in kindergarten through third grade.

"There's no schools out there for children like that, and we're exploring a whole new teaching method," said Christina Giuffre, a teacher who is heading the planning for Kiddy Up Learning Academy. "We really hope the board is as excited about it as we are."

The deadline to apply for a 2014-15 charter is Aug. 1. So far, just a handful of groups have shown an interest.

The arts-themed Dayspring Academy, which operates two campuses in Port Richey, has told the district of its desire to build branches in Holiday, Hudson or both, to serve students on its lengthy waiting list. Tampa-based Pepin Academies also has told officials it wants to grow into Pasco County, where many of its students live. The school, for students with learning disabilities, tried to push through a proposal to open this August but ran afoul of district rules.

"I have heard talk of more coming in," district charter schools coordinator Nancy Scowcroft said. "In the past, we have received probably 50 percent more applications than letters of interest."

Those applications have not always turned into operating schools.

Two years ago, the district received 11 applications, more than in any other year. Despite enthusiasm for many of the proposals, the board approved just one, which has yet to open and remains in contract negotiations. A classical preparatory charter school approved to open this coming fall has delayed its debut as well.

That leaves just one other new charter, the Florida Autism Center for Excellence, slated to begin classes in August. Director Carrie Walker said she is in the process of recruiting staff and students for the school, which sits behind Agape Baptist Church in Zephyrhills.

It would bring the total number of charter schools serving students in Pasco County to six. By contrast, the slightly larger Polk County district has 24 charter schools. That limited representation in Pasco has drawn interest from potential applicants seeking to take advantage of the state's push to provide more school choice. Lawmakers recently added funding for charter school building needs, while restricting the funds for traditional school capital projects.

Giuffre said Kiddy Up initially considered creating a private school until meeting with a staffer for Sen. John Legg, whom she said advised that the state had plenty of money for new charter schools, which are public but not subject to all the red tape placed on mainstream districts. Legg said he and his staff do not advise opening a charter for money, and that funding is not free flowing.

If approved, she said, the school would use its animal therapy model to help children with their social and physical needs, which in turn would benefit their academic skills. The existing ranch uses that model, she said, and "our charter school is basically taking that concept and putting it in a school setting."

Class size would be limited to 10 children per teacher. The applicants are looking at an 11-acre property with a barn in New Port Richey for the school.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

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