Saturday, January 20, 2018
Education

University Preparatory Academy adds to problem of troubled Pinellas elementaries

ST. PETERSBURG — Three years ago, the founders of University Preparatory Academy believed they had the solution for students in south St. Petersburg.

The neighborhood public schools surrounding it frequently appeared on a list of the 300 lowest-performing elementaries in the state. And many saw promise in a new charter boasting single-gender classrooms with lengthened reading and math classes.

They were backed by a 2010 settlement obligating the Pinellas County School Board to try to create 500 charter school seats for children in predominantly black neighborhoods.

But when the state released its latest test results last week — the first since Florida shifted to new standards and tests — University Prep fared worse than the five schools it sought to compete against.

While the school did better than Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Melrose and Maximo elementaries in fifth-grade English language arts, most of its remaining results were comparable to, or below, those schools.

Only 8 percent of University Prep's fourth-graders, for example, passed the English language arts test — far below most of the other schools. And passing rates in math for University Prep's third-, fourth- and fifth-graders were at 10 percent or below.

The other schools, from which University Prep draws many of its students, have turned in some of the worst scores in the state in recent years and were featured in the Tampa Bay Times series, "Failure Factories." University Prep, located in a renovated building that once housed Southside Fundamental Middle School at 1701 10th St. S, enrolled 445 students this year in kindergarten through eighth grade and received $2.6 million in public funding.

'It just takes time'

The school's executive director, Darius Adamson, argues that many of its students come in performing behind their grade level and any gains they make aren't reflected in test scores. For example, a third-grader could come to the school with a first-grade reading level and improve to a second-grade level, but still fail the third-grade test.

The test results, he says, didn't surprise him.

"We've had some areas of growth and we have some areas that we have to grow in," Adamson said. "We know we're moving them. It just takes time."

He says the school needs five years to turn things around — which is similar to what the Pinellas County School District says when discussing its five struggling elementary schools in south St. Petersburg. Adamson says University Prep will keep its strong focus on literacy and work with a math curriculum that is more aligned to the Common Core standards used by the state.

But University Prep may be running out of time, depending on how the Florida Department of Education interprets a new law requiring a charter school's contract to be automatically terminated if it receives two consecutive F grades. The school received F's in 2014 and 2015, though last year's grades don't count against schools because of concerns over the test's validity.

According to an education department spokeswoman, the state will advise districts this summer on how to treat affected schools.

Rick Wolfe, the Pinellas district's charter school director, has made frequent visits to University Prep because of its F grades. He said the school has been following a mandated school improvement plan, which heavily emphasizes reading.

Should the school face termination, Wolfe said the district would advocate for it to stay open. He said his office has received few complaints about the school since Adamson arrived in January 2014 and has observed a positive school climate. He agreed it would take years for the school to turn around.

"That's tough, especially when you're coming into an area with a challenging population," Wolfe said.

University Prep's good standing with the district is why Craig Sher, executive chairman of the shopping center conglomerate Sembler Co., left the school's board about a year ago.

"I think we always knew it would take five to seven years to be an excellent school," he said. "Am I surprised? Yes. Am I disappointed? Yes, but I have a lot of faith in the folks there."

Difficult challenges

Meanwhile, some local black activists — even early advocates for University Prep — are holding the school to the same standard as the district-run schools.

Goliath Davis, a former police chief and deputy mayor who is active in the group Concerned Organization for Quality Education for Black Students, acknowledged the school faced challenges.

"While I understand all of that, my expectation for UPA is no different than it is for the district," he said.

Ric Davis, president of COQEBS, said he wanted to look at the school's interim assessments to determine whether progress is being made before forming an opinion.

"What I want to be is fair with them," he said. "I want to make sure I'm looking at all the data points."

Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego said supporting the school was one of his top priorities to satisfy the district's settlement. He said he hoped the district could continue its partnership with the school and reiterated the importance of the community's support.

"I think another thing it points to is this is difficult work," Grego said. "Just opening a charter school doesn't solve all of the issues.

Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright on Twitter.

Comments
USF leaders move to calm fears over consolidation plan

USF leaders move to calm fears over consolidation plan

ST. PETERSBURG — Holding a piece of computer paper and a microphone, the leader of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg began a Friday afternoon forum by repeating the USF administration’s new mantra.He reassured the crowd before him that t...
Published: 01/19/18

Crews Lake thespians overcome the odds

SPRING HILL — It’s 8:30 a.m. — "homeroom" period in school speak — when kids in the Crews Lake Middle School drama club file into an empty chorus room to begin rehearsing under the direction of language arts teacher Kristen Sykora. There’s only 25 m...
Published: 01/19/18
Cuts hit top school leaders as Hillsborough sheds three six-figure salaries

Cuts hit top school leaders as Hillsborough sheds three six-figure salaries

TAMPA — Hillsborough County school superintendent Jeff Eakins on Friday announced the first in a series of belt-tightening moves that include the elimination of three six-figure positions.Jobs now held by Wynne Tye and Larry Sykes will no longer exis...
Published: 01/19/18
Tampa Bay schools warn parents about flu activity, dangers

Tampa Bay schools warn parents about flu activity, dangers

The Florida Department of Health has reported a sharp increase in flu activity in the last several weeks, prompting area schools to send out letters warning parents about the virus. At least two districts, however, say that flu activity in their scho...
Published: 01/19/18

More than 400 apply to Pasco technical high school

School choice for 2018-19 is in full swing, and district officials said they’ve been pleased with the interest they’ve seen so far.The window for applying to the district’s magnet schools closed Jan. 12, except for applications for the new Wendell Kr...
Published: 01/18/18
Read the report on the fatal FSU frat party: ‘The most intoxicated’ they had ever been

Read the report on the fatal FSU frat party: ‘The most intoxicated’ they had ever been

"On Nov. 3, 2017, the Tallahassee Police Department responded to 1012 Buena Vista Drive … in reference to a death investigation."So begins a charging document in the case of Andrew Coffey, the 20-year-old Florida State University student who was foun...
Published: 01/18/18
In St. Petersburg, skeptics sneer at plan to concentrate USF power in Tampa

In St. Petersburg, skeptics sneer at plan to concentrate USF power in Tampa

In the state capitol on Wednesday, lawmakers breezed through the bullet points of a higher education bill. They skimmed past a hot-button proposal to consolidate the University of South Florida System into a single university without a peep of pushba...
Published: 01/18/18
Five things to know about teacher pay negotiations in Hillsborough

Five things to know about teacher pay negotiations in Hillsborough

TAMPA — They were hoping to receive between $15 million and $17 million in scheduled pay raises. But the Hillsborough County school district says it can’t afford to give its teachers anywhere near that much, while the teachers say they deserve nothin...
Published: 01/17/18
Updated: 01/18/18
Young Pasco teacher faces cancer with support of students

Young Pasco teacher faces cancer with support of students

NEW PORT RICHEY — At age 28, things were really shaping up for Joel Santos-Gonzalez. Fulfilling his lifelong dream of becoming a teacher, he had just completed his third year at Gulf Middle School."I always liked to talk to people on an intellectual ...
Published: 01/17/18
Updated: 01/18/18
In Pinellas and beyond, deadlines for school choice are closing in

In Pinellas and beyond, deadlines for school choice are closing in

It’s decision time in Pinellas County and other local school districts as several school choice deadlines are upon us.For Pinellas families who want to apply for a magnet, fundamental or high school career program for the 2018-19 school year, the dea...
Published: 01/17/18
Updated: 01/18/18