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Pinellas School Board revokes charter of Life Skills Center

Life Skills students Brittany Carla, 16, and Melanie Hernandez, 17, react after the School Board voted Tuesday to close the charter school, which has low graduation rates and poor FCAT scores. 

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Life Skills students Brittany Carla, 16, and Melanie Hernandez, 17, react after the School Board voted Tuesday to close the charter school, which has low graduation rates and poor FCAT scores. 

LARGO — When 16-year-old Brittany Carla needed a second chance at getting her high school diploma, she turned to Life Skills Center charter school in St. Petersburg.

Despite pleas to the Pinellas County School Board on Tuesday, neither she nor her fellow students were able to return the favor.

School Board members voted 5-2 to close the 375-student Life Skills, marking the first time the district has discontinued a charter school contract.

The decision followed more than an hour of emotional appeals from students, teachers and parents not to shutter the campus, which sought to help students at risk of dropping out.

Melanie Hernandez, 17, sobbed against a wall after she heard the vote. "I don't think it's a fair decision," said Hernandez, who enrolled in Life Skills last year after struggling at F-rated Gibbs High School.

"Any other school would have been given a second chance," she said noting that the district is trying to help Gibbs raise its grade.

Superintendent Julie Janssen told board members that Life Skills failed to meet the state's requirements for student performance and repeatedly fell short of its own educational goals.

"I'm still convinced this charter has not provided the academic instruction that should be provided," Janssen said.

Key to the district's objections: for two years, the school did not administer FCAT to 90 percent of its students, as required by law. Only 62 to 69 percent took the required test, among the lowest in the state.

Additionally, Life Skills' graduation rate averaged 12 percent in four years, compared with 37 percent at a district-run high school for at-risk students.

Life Skills' principal countered that the dropout rate isn't a fair measure, since it takes into account how many of the students graduate with their age groups. Most of the students who come to Life Skills come because they have fallen far behind contemporaries in traditional schools.

Board members Linda Lerner and Mary Brown dissented, arguing to give the school a one-year probationary contract so it could build on its successes and hold its management company accountable.

The school is run by White Hat Management, an Ohio-based company that touts itself as one of the largest for-profit charter school companies in the U.S.

Board members blamed Life Skills' charter board for not being more active and not demanding more from White Hat.

"White Hat management has failed you," Brown said. "And your board has failed you in not holding White Hat Management accountable."

Charter schools are publicly funded, but privately operated with limited oversight by the state and local school district.

On June 25, Life Skills will hold its final graduation ceremony for 50 students. The charter school, which has a staff of about 22, will close June 30. After that, the remaining students will have to find new schools.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or rcatalanello@sptimes.com.

Pinellas School Board revokes charter of Life Skills Center 06/15/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 15, 2010 10:50pm]
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