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Struggling charter school makes its case to stay open

LARGO — Pinellas County School Board members are giving a struggling charter school a few more weeks to make the case for its survival.

Leaders of Life Skills Center in St. Petersburg met with the board on Tuesday to unveil their strategies for turning the troubled school around.

Among the plans laid out by Mark Rice, president and chief executive of for-profit owner White Hat Management: hire a Harvard-educated consultant, a literacy coach and a data analyst. Eliminate student test jitters with the help of a testing coach. And increase the average number of days a student attends school to 60 percent.

But board members said the plan they heard lacked detail.

"I'm disappointed," board member Mary Brown said, "very disappointed."

Opened five years ago to target high school dropouts seeking diplomas, the now 332-student Life Skills, has failed to meet many goals laid out in its charter agreement with the district.

Its graduation rate for the last two years averaged 12 percent, according to district leaders. Student attendance averages 41 percent. And only about 60 percent of students took the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in the last two years, far below the 90 percent required by state law.

"I did not come here to waste your time by pretending we don't have big issues that we need to discuss and problems that need solutions," Rice said.

But Brown and fellow board member Linda Lerner said they are concerned about White Hat's leadership. Both said they want to see a budget supporting the charter school's proposed reforms before voting in May on whether to close the charter school, 4901 Central Ave.

"The mother company hasn't done all that it should have done," Brown said. "It never should have gotten to this point if the mother company had been doing what they should have been doing."

Charter schools are publicly funded, but are privately run with limited oversight from the state and local school districts.

In a workshop after the hearing, Lerner and Brown said they would support giving the school a one-year probationary contract if the school can present a detailed plan for improvement — one that includes a planned budget and regular benchmarks for monitoring.

Rice said the school could produce the plan by May 17 in time for the board to possibly make a decision in June.

Superintendent Julie Janssen said during the morning hearing that she needed to see a detailed plan of change in order to back away from her recommendation that the charter school's five-year contract not be renewed. But her second-in-command indicated more flexibility by the afternoon.

Deputy superintendent Jim Madden told board members that a one-year contract renewal might be fair if Life Skills returns with a workable plan.

There are 12 charter schools in Pinellas County. Though the School Board has never forcibly closed a charter, 128 have closed statewide.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or

Struggling charter school makes its case to stay open 04/27/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 28, 2010 10:29am]
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