Like many other school districts, Pinellas County struggles to close the academic achievement gap between black and white students. The achievement gap includes test scores, suspensions and expulsions, and graduation rates.
And like other districts, Pinellas is witnessing a movement by black parents to establish charter schools. These are primary or secondary schools that receive public funding but are exempted from some regulations and statutes governing regular public schools in exchange for specific accountability.
As many would-be charter operators in Pinellas have discovered, starting a school in Florida is an arduous process that requires expertise, community teamwork and money. For several months, I have been following the efforts of the Learning Village of Pinellas Inc., a new nonprofit corporation that is laying the groundwork for establishing several area charter schools.
The corporation's founding directors are no strangers to public education in the Tampa Bay area. They are attorney Guy Burns, who represented plaintiffs in the Crowley case, the class-action lawsuit that accused the Pinellas School Board of failing to adequately educate African-American students; Doug Tuthill, the former Pinellas Teachers Union president who is now president of the Step Up for Students voucher organization; Goliath Davis, former St. Petersburg police chief and a former city administrator; and Bill Heller, former University of South Florida dean, professor of education and a former state representative. The corporation hired Linda Benware as a consultant. This was an excellent move because Benware is a former Pinellas school district administrator who was the first principal at St. Petersburg Collegiate High School, a highly successful charter school.
During an interview, Burns and Davis said the Learning Village is the logical outgrowth of the Crowley case. The district settled the case last year, agreeing to a goal of creating 500 new charter school seats for black students in five years.
To gauge interest in establishing charters, identify viable groups and offer help through the application process, the corporation held a series of public meetings at the Enoch Davis Center in St. Petersburg. School district charter school experts were on hand to advise potential applicants.
Under Florida law, applicants face many challenges, and here is where the corporation's village concept comes into play. The organization will serve as an adviser and landlord. In addition to having, among other matters, a solid mission, verifiable plans for curriculum and instruction, adequate financing, professional staffing and proof of how students will be assessed, potential operators must acquire a brick-and-mortar space, a building or a room.
Most aspiring operators cannot afford a suitable facility, nor can they pay for an adequate number of employees to serve the students they anticipate.
"Classroom success for a new charter operator is most likely to be achieved with a smaller and more manageable student body size," corporation officials say in their proposal to lease a county-owned facility. "At the same time, smaller and more manageable student body size prevents a charter operator from achieving sufficient economies of scale to be successful on the business side of school operations.
"It is the goal of the Learning Village to acquire a facility for charter operators in south St. Petersburg. It is also (our) goal to provide additional shared resources. … These resources may come in the form of central administration, clerical assistance, lunchroom/dietary facilities, transportation, and custodial services. By combining the charter operations in one location with shared resources and facilities, the new charter schools can achieve both educational and economic success."
Davis said the leased facility would be an "incubator" and an "education condominium," where each charter school, some with as few as 40 students, would have its own space and would be free to fulfill its unique mission.
"The various independent charters will collaborate as they occupy a common facility, sharing overhead expenses as well as other costs and mutually agreed upon resources," Davis said.
To its credit, the School Board is working with the Learning Village. Now the corporation has to secure a facility to house its "education condominium" that will serve 500 students.