A successful Tampa charter school that serves students with special academic needs wants to expand into Pasco County.
The Pepin Academies, which specializes in educating students with learning disabilities, wants to open a campus somewhere in Pasco for up to 170 children in third through seventh grades. It would aim to grow to 415 students, adding eighth through 12th graders, within six years.
Pasco district officials welcomed the school's interest.
"It's a school that serves that group of students very well," said School Board vice chairwoman Alison Crumbley, who recently toured Pepin's east Tampa school. "It would be a great addition to our school system."
But not this fall.
Pepin submitted its charter school application on Feb. 21, with a request to open this August. But district policy sets an application deadline of Aug. 1 for a school that wants to open the following year — meaning the earliest Pepin could open would be the fall of 2014.
"I am not asking for a waiver of the rules. I will not," said superintendent Kurt Browning. "If you keep making exceptions to the rules, you're bound to run into trouble somehow."
It takes time to assess a charter application for its viability, district charter schools supervisor Nancy Scowcroft said. If the district were to move on Pepin's off-schedule request, she said, it would create a precedent for future applicants that the district staff might not be able to meet.
"It would be hard for any school district . . . to look at applications throughout the school year and do a quality job," Scowcroft said.
Crisha Scolaro, a founder of the Pepin Academies, said her organization could meet the quick turnaround it has proposed. She was hopeful "everything boils down to the children and wanting to serve their needs."
Scolaro noted that Pepin, which is also looking to expand into other areas such as southeast Hillsborough County, would fit a niche that's not currently served in Pasco.
"We're the only charter school in the state of Florida that has a full ESE program," she said. "We have a high school that has a standard diploma option. That is the catch right there, as far as making us unique."
About 80 percent of Pepin high school students graduate with that standard diploma, she said, "and we've never had a dropout." Because of the school's sole focus on children with special needs, she added, it does not struggle to find qualified teachers.
Parents may not choose the school for their children, Scolaro explained. The students must be identified as learning disabled and also as having not found success at their current school.
"It's not that parents look for us because they want to pull their child out," she said. "They are desperately looking for an answer to make their child successful."
Crumbley said she initially visited Pepin at the suggestion of a family friend, who raved about how the school helped his child.
"Parents love the school," she said, adding that she was impressed by everything she saw on her tour.
She suggested that the best charter schools are ones that are run and supported locally. Although the application might not get immediate attention, Crumbley said, she looked forward to eventually getting a chance to add a Pepin charter school to the district.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.