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Pinellas proposes taking over a charter high school for at-risk students

LARGO — After a decade of not opening any schools, Pinellas County wants to launch a third new school this year, superintendent Mike Grego announced Tuesday.

The plan came about after Gulf Coast Academy, an alternative charter high school in Largo with about 350 students, decided to close its doors.

Gulf Coast and another charter, Imagine Middle School in St. Petersburg, are calling it quits this summer amid chronically low performance, district officials said at a School Board workshop.

While the Pinellas County schools staff is working to place Imagine's 46 students at other schools, Grego told the board he wants to take Gulf Coast — which serves students who are at risk of dropping out — under the traditional system's wing.

"I believe we can do a better job," he said.

Two other charter schools — University Preparatory Academy and Pinellas Academy of Math and Science — came under review Tuesday.

Both have issues serving students with special needs, said Dot Clark, the administrator who coordinates charter school applications for the district. Additionally, more than 100 students have withdrawn from University Prep, while Pinellas Academy has had three principals in two years.

These two schools, however, are new to Pinellas. Imagine Middle, open since 2008, has earned an F for the past two years and D grades before that. Its elementary school was forced to close last summer.

Gulf Coast officials sent a letter to the School Board attorney saying they did not plan to renew their charter ending in June. The school's graduation rate last spring was less than 7 percent.

Clark said attendance was a frequent problem at Gulf Coast. County Commissioner Susan Latvala, chairwoman of the school's board of directors, did not return a phone call seeking comment. A message left at the school's main line was not returned either.

Gulf Coast opened its doors in 2009. According to its website, the school's mission is "To provide for our students the highest levels of instruction and academic achievement combined with exemplary character development that will prepare them for postsecondary and apprenticeship education and sustained lifelong success." The Gulf Coast motto is "Born to Soar."

School Board members sounded pleased with Grego's pitch, particularly because he wants to retain Gulf Coast's current students.

"I think it's a great idea to do something for those kids," board member Peggy O'Shea said.

"I think it's worth pursuing," said board member Robin Wikle. "What I'd like to know is, are we talking about taking over their lease? Their supplies?"

Grego said he had recently visited Gulf Coast and was impressed by the building. He plans to deliver a financial estimate and a more formal plan for the school, which serves some adult students, at the School Board's April 15 workshop.

If the board approves Grego's plan, Gulf Coast would join two elementaries as new additions to the district when the 2014-15 school year begins in August.

Board members previously approved the reopenings of Gulf Beaches Elementary in St. Pete Beach and Kings Highway Elementary in Clearwater. Both schools were closed in 2009 due to low enrollment, but are being reinvented as technology magnet schools drawing students countywide.

David Barnes, executive director of career, technical and adult education for the school district, said he had not realized Gulf Coast Academy had such a large enrollment.

He said he has seen a need in the area among "overaged" students — 19, 20, 21 years old — many of whom could go on to career colleges in Pinellas if they complete their diplomas. There also could be opportunities for students to work part of the school day and receive on-the-job training.

"There's a possibility of growing an adult high school connected to the same type of 344 students we don't want to see lost," Grego said.

Lisa Gartner can be reached at lgartner@tampabay.com. Follow her on Twitter @lisagartner.

Pinellas proposes taking over a charter high school for at-risk students 04/01/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 2, 2014 12:25am]
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