Pinellas County school officials are investigating parents' claims that a new St. Petersburg charter school is kicking out students with behavior issues.
Members of the School Board and community also have raised concerns about teachers quitting in the opening weeks of University Preparatory Academy's first school year.
"First we have to investigate to see what in the world is going on," said Dot Clark, the partnership schools coordinator for Pinellas County schools.
Clark said that in the past few days, she has received phone calls from parents "about students who might have been told they need to find another place."
A public charter school can't pick and choose which students it wants to keep, Clark said. "Cherry picking" students would allow a school to boost its test scores, attendance rates and other performance measures. "We're asking: Are you doing that? And if so, what's the justification? And it needs to stop."
University Prep founder Cheri Shannon acknowledged Thursday that the school has had some issues in its opening weeks and said some students have left voluntarily. But she challenged reports that the school was cherry picking.
University Prep opened last month at the former site of Southside Fundamental Middle. The new charter showed promise, enrolling 515 children, with 100 more on its waiting list.
It also took on a big challenge, drawing kids from Melrose, Maximo and Campbell Park — all regular elementary schools with D and F grades and large numbers of poor, minority students.
But at a meeting this week of the Concerned Citizens for Quality Education for Black Students, some accused University Prep of rejecting the community rather than embracing it.
"I am very concerned about University Prep. They have a discipline problem over there," said Frances Cato, a coordinator with the Pinellas Opportunity Council. "They had a teacher quit after the first week. They had a teacher quit after the second week."
After the meeting, School Board member Terry Krassner said she had heard students were returning to Melrose.
"If a charter school's not going to embrace the kids and work what they have, then what's the point?" Krassner said. "I mean, if you're just kicking them out? It's still a public school."
Watson Haynes, president of the Pinellas County Urban League, said University Prep cut off communication after the School Board approved its charter. Both the Urban League and Concerned Citizens helped gather support for the school.
Shannon said there was no falling out. She had been busy getting the school running.
Shannon denied sending students back to their home schools. However, she acknowledged that some parents have elected to withdraw their children.
In some cases, even though Shannon had gone through with the withdrawal paperwork and filled the child's seat, the parent kept sending the child. Shannon said she had to explain to the parent that the child was no longer enrolled.
Another possible explanation for the complaints, Shannon said, was that the mother of a suspended first-grader had threatened this week to go to the School Board.
It was also possible that University Prep teachers were using language with children that could be misunderstood, Shannon said. "It could be when we say, 'Where did you go last year? If this isn't working out, you're going to have to find something else because you're doing this behavior and you've been kicked out of three schools already. What's next for you?' "
Shannon said she would talk with staff Thursday evening.
One teacher did quit after a student knocked her over, Shannon said. The school's director of curriculum also resigned. "She said she just wasn't prepared for our population."