Pinellas could get first Montessori charter, at beach

Four years after the last public school closed on Pinellas County's barrier islands, residents are a step closer to getting a new school for their children.

A charter school, that is.

The Pinellas County School Board has signed off on an application for Academy by the Sea, a proposed Montessori charter school that would serve students in grades 4-8. To open for the 2014-15 school year, the school must successfully negotiate a charter with the district and be approved by the board.

Academy by the Sea would be the first Montessori charter school in Pinellas. Charter organizers say it would provide a much-needed public school option for children living on the barrier islands.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run.

Montessori education is based on the teachings of Maria Montessori, who emphasized exploration, independence and harmony. Students typically are in multi-age classrooms.

The last traditional public school on the islands, Gulf Beaches Elementary, closed in 2009. It was one of eight schools shuttered in Pinellas because of declining enrollment and budget cuts.

Since then, beach kids have gone to private schools or been bused over the bridge to the public schools.

St. Pete Beach Mayor Steve McFarlin told board members that it's a "tremendous burden" on families to send their children miles away from home.

The proposed charter would start small, with a maximum of 154 students the first year and 176 after that. It hasn't secured a location yet, but organizers say their goal is to open in St. Pete Beach. They also are considering Madeira Beach and Treasure Island.

District officials warned organizers that evidence of solid financial standing would be required before the charter would be approved.

The school is trying to raise $100,000. Nicole Wilson, a member of the charter's board of directors, said they have pledges for $88,000 but won't accept the money until their nonprofit status is approved. That could happen this week, she said.

"We are well on our way," she said.

The School Board rejected an application last month from another proposed charter, Palm Harbor Montessori, in part because of financial concerns. Dot Clark, who reviews charters for the district, said Academy by the Sea was different because it had a "very strong application" in all other areas.

Academy by the Sea would seek prospective students from Gulfport Elementary's magnet Montessori and two private Montessori schools, Montessori by the Sea in Pass-a-Grille and Alegria Montessori in St. Petersburg.

Wilson, who also is director of Montessori by the Sea, said she hopes to send her two children to Academy by the Sea. Her 6-year-old son attends Montessori by the Sea, and her 8-year-old son goes to Bay Vista Fundamental Elementary.

She said that when her older son was in kindergarten it seemed the best decision was to accept a spot in a coveted fundamental school. Like many Pinellas parents, she said she feared that not getting into a fundamental at a "very young age" would limit his choices for middle and high school.

"Our community is asking for more quality public school options," Wilson told the School Board.

Tarah Martin, who has a first-grader at Gulfport Elementary, told board members that there aren't options for students in the Montessori program after fifth grade. Pinellas doesn't have a Montessori option for middle school students.

"This is the perfect solution for the Gulfport parents," she said.

Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at cfitzpatrick@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8846. Follow @Fitz_ly on Twitter.

Pinellas could get first Montessori charter, at beach 11/14/13 [Last modified: Friday, November 15, 2013 12:32pm]

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