Friday, January 19, 2018
Education

Pinellas abruptly closes Ben Gamla charter school

Time flew, and suddenly Jen Shtab's only child was old enough for kindergarten. This required careful attention.

Shtab attended open houses for charter schools in Clearwater and Dunedin, talking with teachers and principals and parents until she found exactly the right fit: Ben Gamla, a 1-year-old charter school with small classes that teaches Hebrew language and culture.

Shtab liked that her son, Fynn, would be in combined classes with older students so that everyone could learn on his or her level, and she felt that the staff was warm. She turned down the other charters to which Fynn had been accepted. She enrolled him at the summer camp held on Ben Gamla's campus, thinking that in his very first year of school, it might ease some stress to know where the water fountains were.

And then last week she got the email. "I started reading the beginning and I thought someone had died," Shtab said.

Ben Gamla was closing, and it had nothing to do with the school's performance or finances — but a seeming technicality.

Ben Gamla was approved to open with both a national governing board and a local one. The National Ben Gamla Charter School Foundation held the school's official charter, though the local board ended up making all the decisions, both sides acknowledge.

The Clearwater school opened to about 40 students in kindergarten through the fifth grade, with plans to expand into the middle-school grades.

Eric Lynn, chairman of the local board, acknowledges there were some hiccups in the first year. Notably, the Hebrew teacher left and it took a couple of months to find a replacement.

But overall, the school's first year was a success. Students scored well on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, with mostly 4s and 5s, Lynn said. (The data is not publicly available because of the school's small size.) As far as finances, Lynn said the school was thousands of dollars in the black.

Then members of the national board decided to sever ties with the school. In their view, they simply didn't have enough to do with the school.

"We had all the responsibility and none of the enjoyment," said Peter Deutsch, founder of the national organization . "You're in charge, you're responsible (but) you're not really making the decisions."

The national board pulling out meant the school would have to close, unless the charter could be transferred to the local school.

Lynn said his board began meeting with Pinellas County administration about making it possible. Because the local board had been calling the shots all along, it seemed possible. The transfer was added to the School Board's July agenda.

Then, Lynn says, he got a call from the school system. There would be no vote. They were closing the school.

"It is not the district's practice to transfer a charter to an entity that has not been approved by this district to operate a charter," said Melanie Marquez Parra, a spokeswoman for the school district. "An entity that wants to run a charter needs to submit an application and go through the standard vetting process."

Lynn said he was taken aback. He understood the reasoning. In most cases, handing over a school to a new group wouldn't be a sound choice.

But in this circumstance, "the people who were most involved with the school, meaning the parents, the teachers, the local board, were cut out of the process," he said. "The people least involved with the school, the National Ben Gamla Board and the Pinellas School Board, worked to close the school even though they had much less knowledge."

The decision coming in mid June left Ben Gamla parents with few options for the fall.

"I don't know what we're going to do," said Janice Carlin, whose son was in the fourth grade at Ben Gamla this year. She said they both cried. He had been unhappy at his neighborhood school in Safety Harbor.

"I want the best for him. Finally we found the school and we loved it so much. I've never seen him so happy," Carlin said, referring to Ben Gamla. "I've never seen him learn so much, coming home and telling me about the huge amounts of information he learned. And all of a sudden it was taken away from us, and we waited so long for it."

Jennifer Wedmore said her son, who has motor skill, speech and language impediments, typically earned Cs and Ds when he attended Garrison-Jones Elementary in Dunedin.

But after transferring to Ben Gamla, he almost made the honor roll, Wedmore said. "His confidence grew so much that he volunteered to narrate a play, despite his speech disabilities."

Shtab called Pinellas Academy of Math and Science, a charter she turned down when she chose Ben Gamla for Fynn; the Academy now has more than 20 children on its kindergarten waiting list.

"It was such a big deal to make a decision, and check out all the schools," Shtab said. "It's just very frustrating, as a parent, when this happens, and for political reasons."

Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).

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