It's 9 a.m. on the day before the FCAT, but the 16 third-graders at Academie Da Vinci aren't stressing about the test.
Instead, they shuffle sleepy-eyed to the back corner of the lunchroom and peel covers from their keyboards. Music teacher Vicki Poppell points to a musical symbol and asks if anyone can name it.
"Treble clef," a student answers. Correct.
"Anybody remember what treble means?" Poppell asks.
"High?" another answers. Correct, again.
Minutes later, the students are playing patterns of notes their peers have arranged.
It's obvious even from first impressions that Academie Da Vinci in Dunedin isn't a typical public school. It's a charter school, an experiment in education reform that's more than a decade old in Pinellas, yet still a mystery to most parents.
The idea behind charters: Give schools more flexibility in return for more accountability. If they can offer a different curriculum and still get kids to pass the FCAT, fine. Otherwise, they must close.
Pinellas officials are pleased with charter schools so far.
"They provide innovation and creativity," said Steve Swartzel, one of several officials working on the district's charter school oversight team. "They're one more option for parents."
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Pinellas had no charter schools until Academie Da Vinci opened in 1997. Now the district has six — four elementaries and two high schools that serve about 1,351 students. Two more elementaries are scheduled to open in the fall.
Meanwhile, Hillsborough has 27 charter schools that enroll about 4,500 students. The district has approved five more, including one aimed at students from low-income families.
Charter proponents say that's the beauty of the schools: They're small enough to cater to the needs of specific groups. And because they're locally controlled by a board of directors, they have the flexibility to adjust programs to suit students' needs.
That's what attracted Bethany Perry of Largo. The substitute teacher was satisfied with the education her children were getting at Orange Grove Elementary School in Seminole. Then she got the chance to work at Pinellas Preparatory School, a charter for 298 fourth- through eighth-graders.
Impressed with the school's commitment to tailor teaching, Perry transferred her oldest son, Christopher, 11, midway through fifth grade. Michayela, 10, and Daniel, 9, joined him in August.
"All of our kids are so different," Perry said. "The school offers something unique for all of them. Finding that in one place was priceless."
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Despite parents' fierce loyalty to charters, the relationship between the schools and some school districts is contentious.
Critics say charters — which get public money but are largely free of district oversight — have produced test scores slightly lower than traditional schools. Last year, 141 charters earned A's and B's from the state; 27 got D's and F's.
Although many of Florida's more than 350 charter schools have thrived, 99 have closed. Until recently, nearly 30 percent were running deficits.
A 2006 report on Florida charter schools co-authored by Bryan C. Hassel, co-director of the national education policy firm Public Impact, noted that about 40 percent of them fly under the state's accountability radar because of their small numbers.
And because charters receive 11.4 percent less funding than district schools, many are burdened with debt from the start.
On the other hand, Hassel countered the oft-heard claim that big-chain charter companies are only out to make money.
"They can't grow unless they're successful," he said in an interview, "at least not in the short term."
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Pinellas hasn't been immune to the challenges. Plato Academy in Clearwater, which opened in 2004, spent nearly all of its $250,000 startup grant in the first few months, forcing its board chairman to work voluntarily as interim principal.
Since then, the Greek immersion school has made a turnaround, district officials say. More than 300 children are on its waiting list. Academically, Plato's students outshine their peers, with 90 percent performing at grade level or above in reading.
Pinellas' success with charters goes beyond FCAT scores. Since its debut three years ago, Life Skills Center of St. Petersburg, a school for 16- to 21-year-olds who have left school but want to earn a diploma, has graduated 75 students.
Former administrator Bonnie Solinsky said Life Skills is an example of what the best charter schools can be.
"It's a partnered endeavor in that we support the district and the district supports us," Solinsky said. "We're here to help each other help kids."
That's the kind of relationship Robert Conner hopes to forge as principal of Imagine Charter School of Pinellas, scheduled to open in St. Petersburg in August.
The school, one of more than 50 Imagine sites nationwide, will use a curriculum that groups students in triads where they stay with the same teachers for three years.
"The teachers get to know those kids extremely well," said Conner, a former public school administrator. "The kids are diagnosed and remediated much more quickly."
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Roy Basmaci chose Academie Da Vinci for his daughter, Rachel, after deciding she wasn't getting enough academic attention at a traditional public kindergarten. Five years later, he calls the Academie "a private public school."
All 116 students take music, dance, drama and visual arts. The teachers follow Sunshine State Standards, but they don't have to adhere to the district pacing guides that tell them what to teach and when.
Last year, 96 percent of Academie students — 30 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — passed the FCAT in reading, and 95 percent passed in math, one of the highest rates in the county.
Despite the success of schools like the Academie, there isn't much publicity about charters, and what media attention there is tends to be negative, says administrator Dawn Wilson.
"It's time for some of that stigma to be worn away," she said.
Academie Da Vinci dance teacher Andrew Guilfoil agreed one recent morning as he reflected on his students' progress and the school's mission.
"We're not trying to create the next Baryshnikov," Guilfoil said. "We're striving to create well-rounded individuals."