Like most of Florida, Pinellas County is welcoming more charter schools to its school district.
That means more work for school officials, who must monitor each charter school from the application phase to FCATs.
Four charter schools opened last fall, bringing the total number to 17 with some 4,000 of the district's 101,000 students enrolled.
Another three charter schools are set to open in August with still more applicants in the process of negotiating contracts with school officials.
"We could be up to 23 to 24 charter schools this time next year,'' said Dot Clark, who oversees charter schools for the district. "The environment is very ripe for charter schools in Florida.''
The state ranks third in the nation for charter schools with more than 459, according to the Florida Department of Education.
Charter schools are public schools that receive public tax dollars, but they operate independent from the school district. They have separate school boards, manage their own finances, which include private funding, and create their own curricula and rules.
But charter schools, like traditional public schools, still have to meet state standards and undergo local and state reviews.
Unlike its neighbor, Hillsborough County, where there are 36 charter schools, Pinellas doesn't have a separate office devoted to charter schools.
Instead, Clark and others fold the responsibility into their other district duties. "Absolutely, it's a larger obligation,'' Clark said.
The district visits each charter school at least once a year and some more often, depending on the circumstances, she said.
The staff also monitors applications and contracts throughout the year.
Overall, the district spends an estimated $900,000 to $1 million each year to oversee charter schools, depending on the number of applications.
Charter schools pay an administrative fee to the district for the oversight that covers some of the costs — 5 percent per student, up to 250 students for most.
High-performing schools like St. Petersburg Collegiate High School — graded an A by the state with no grade below a B for the past three years — pay only 2 percent.
The district also hires a consultant to prepare an annual report that evaluates each charter school based on FCAT performance from the prior year and other measures that include student attendance and discipline, and self-reported information such as parent participation.
Then the district and charter school leaders develop goals for the coming school year. The 2011 report released late this fall cost the district $25,000, Clark said.
Here are highlights from that report, which can be found at pcsb.org:
ALFRED ADLER ELEMENTARY, St. Petersburg: In the first year of FCAT testing the school met its goal to perform above the district mean in reading and did not meet its goal to perform above the district mean in mathematics. The student retention rate was above 90 percent, and parent satisfaction ratings were high among those parents who responded to a survey.
IMAGINE CHARTER SCHOOLS (Pre-k through 8), St. Petersburg: Imagine Charter School didn't meet most of its goals for the 2010-11 district evaluation and overall, results indicated that students continue to experience academic and behavioral difficulties, according to the district's evaluation. But the elementary school did make significant progress, principal Angela Prince said.
"We are no longer a failing school,'' she said, citing the school's recent D grade from the state.
It comes after two consecutive F's.
Imagine Middle School also received a D this year, its second in as many years.
It shows how hard the 405 students and their teachers have worked, Prince said.
The former public school reformer with the Annenberg Institute-funded nonprofit Houston A+ Challenge in Texas and Broward County school administrator came to St. Petersburg's Imagine Schools in 2010.
Her assignment: turn around the struggling schools.
Prince said she replaced most of her 15-member teaching staff, beefed up the curriculum to reflect new state benchmarks, recruited more than 150 new students and even renovated the schools.
To address her schools' low scores in reading and math, Prince added more professional development for teachers and lengthened the school day by an hour to add intensive classes for each subject.
In middle school, the traditional schedule went to 100-minute blocks. Afterschool programs, including a federally funded free tutoring program, were added.
Now her focus is on preparing teachers and children for the new FCAT score cutoffs.
"We're showing kids what they scored last year and what that will mean if they score the same this year,'' she said. "We have to do better.''
MAVERICKS IN EDUCATION, Largo: The school's FCAT participation was once again well below the 90 percent threshold.
Mavericks in Education hired new school leader George Joyce for the 2010-11 school year and focused more attention on classroom participation for its nontraditional high school program.
The school, designed to serve high school students at risk for not graduating, features flexible schedules and online classes that allow them to work at their own pace.
New this year is more of an emphasis on direct instruction, said Lauren Hollander, superintendent of Mavericks in Education schools in Florida.
The idea, Hollander said, is to spend more time with students in the classroom to ensure they are earning credits toward graduation and mastering reading and math concepts — areas where the school has struggled the previous two school years, according to the district's evaluation.
Hollander said she was unfamiliar with the charter school report and that Joyce was hesitant to comment on findings that came from test scores and other measurements obtained before his time at the school.
PINELLAS PREPARATORY ACADEMY, Largo: Overall students achieve at levels above the Pinellas district average. However, efforts to improve performance among economically disadvantaged students did not result in achievement gains in 2010-11.
PLATO ACADEMY SOUTH, Largo: In its first year of operation, the school met most of its goals with 70 percent of its students scoring at or above grade level in reading, math and other subjects.
ST. PETERSBURG COLLEGIATE HIGH SCHOOL: All sophomores passed the math FCAT and 95 percent passed the reading FCAT. Ninety-eight percent of seniors graduated with a high school diploma and 90 percent also graduated with an associate in arts degree.