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Troubled Pinellas charter school plans a second location in Tampa

A new charter school beleaguered by problems in St. Petersburg is planning to negotiate a contract to replicate the school in Tampa, its founder says.

Cheri Shannon, who also is the temporary principal of University Preparatory Academy, said in an interview this week it was important to get the Pinellas school running smoothly. But "sometimes that takes three to five years."

She said of the school's governing board: "I don't know if they're going to wait that long" to open in Tampa.

If approved, current plans call for the Tampa school to open next fall.

Jenna Hodgens, director of charters for Hillsborough County schools, said the School Board would need to consider the issues that have troubled University Prep.

Eighty-seven students have withdrawn from the St. Petersburg University Prep in its first two months, while several teachers and the curriculum director resigned. The school also ran afoul of Pinellas when it used unauthorized school buses to transport students to and from school. One of the buses crashed, injuring three students.

Although detailed in University Prep's contract with Pinellas, a local advisory board of parents and community members has not yet been created. Applications were sent out Friday, two months into the school year.

Shannon unexpectedly became University Prep's principal amid a severe time-crunch to get the school running. Doug Tuthill, the president of Step Up For Students and a key person in connecting Shannon with Pinellas, says she is working "80-hour weeks." The school expects to hire a replacement principal this semester.

Shannon has described these issues as typical for new charter schools. However, none of the four charters that opened in Pinellas in 2012 saw such high withdrawal rates.

In Tampa, University Prep is eyeing the area from Florida Avenue in downtown up toward Sulphur Springs. Shannon said finding a building for the school will be the biggest challenge. Unlike Pinellas, Hillsborough does not have any surplus school buildings.

Shannon also has applications approved in Broward and Palm Beach counties, although it's unclear if and when those schools would open. "You can always negotiate a contract or start through that process" and then walk away, she said.

The final decision on whether to pursue a Hillsborough opening in fall 2014 will be made by the school's governing board, which meets Oct. 30.

Hodgens said her department was aware of University Prep's problems in St. Petersburg, except for the busing issue. "That would definitely be something on my radar," she said. "We wouldn't want that to happen here." She expected University Prep's other challenges to come up during School Board discussions. A local board is an especially high priority, Hodgens said.

"We may put in some safeguards so what happened there doesn't happen here."

Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner@tampabay.com. You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).

Troubled Pinellas charter school plans a second location in Tampa 10/22/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 22, 2013 11:52pm]

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