NEW PORT RICHEY — Kerrie Cuffe had "great experiences" in her 12 years teaching in Pasco County public schools.
As time passed, though, Cuffe found herself wanting more. She had developed a vision for what she believed education should look like, and she wanted to make it happen.
Back in 2011, Cuffe began laying the groundwork to open a charter school, as she pursued an advanced degree in education leadership. This fall, the Learning Lodge Academy charter school makes its debut.
"Mine is like a home-grown school," she said, noting that she attended all Pasco County schools growing up. "It felt right. I want to stay here. I want to bring my vision to life here."
The school, which will begin with students in kindergarten through third grade, including Cuffe's son Ryan, will focus on a teaching model called the Kagan method. That system, also used at the Independent Day School in Carrollwood, aims to get children more active and engaged in learning by training teachers how to create the expectations and classroom culture that encourages participation and cooperation.
Students will be able to learn according to their own styles and strengths, with many hands-on science, technology, engineering and mathematics projects that allow everyone to get involved.
No more "sage on the stage," Cuffe said.
It's a model she's seen attempted in other places with varying degrees of success.
"I have seen where it's not consistent or pervasive," she said. "I have been to model schools where it is lived and breathed. That is what I wish to create, a school community."
The school has not hired its 17-member teaching staff yet. But Cuffe said she has received more than 200 letters of inquiry, mostly from current Pasco teachers with whom she worked over the years.
Many students have enrolled, learning about the school via word of mouth. But more seats remain available. Learning Lodge has not done much marketing.
Cinnemon Weinhauer liked the concept enough to send her youngest child, Calle, to the charter and to join its board of directors. Weinhauer sent her other three children through public schools, where she met Cuffe.
"She is a dynamic educator, very creative, very passionate about what she does," Weinhauer said. "She talked to me about being a part of this. I was very excited. She is so competent and really knows her stuff."
So while she'll miss being involved at Hudson Elementary, where she attended and later enrolled her children, Weinhauer expects Learning Lodge to be "fantastic" for her daughter and other kids.
For a while, the grand opening looked dicey.
Cuffe was negotiating for property near Gulf High School, but the deal fell apart over finances. She had already gone through city zoning hearings and was prepared to renovate the site.
"When it came down to the final lease, it was like, we can't afford this for our children," she said. "It would have taken away from the program that we wanted to provide and that we promised."
In late June, she learned a private school abruptly moved out of the Unity Truth Center on Pine Hill Road in Port Richey. Cuffe called church leaders, and "we were able to negotiate a lease in six days."
She got the keys, volunteers began painting and cleaning during the July 4th weekend, and the building is on track for an Aug. 18 first day of classes.
Cuffe stressed that children do not need to meet any entrance criteria. Some parents have asked if there are income or other rules, as the school initially was proposed to serve needy children in the Hudson area.
"There is no policy for screening children," she said. "Anyone who wants to apply is welcome to apply."
If the school receives more applicants than it has approved seats, it will use a lottery to pick who gets in.
Two other charter schools also are slated to open in the fall, the Pepin Academies for students with special needs, and the Classical Preparatory School focusing on traditional liberal arts. With these additions, Pasco County will have nine charter schools.
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. Follow @jeffsolochek.