University Preparatory Academy, the new charter school in south St. Petersburg, opened last August with lofty promises.
From the start, it had serious problems, most notably failing to establish a board of advisers in a timely manner and using a bus company not yet approved by Pinellas County School Board. Daily management was so chaotic that at least 77 pupils withdrew, and four teachers and the curriculum director left. To change the school's direction, the governing board hired Darius Adamson as principal. Adamson is a founding partner of the Solomon Group, a North Carolina-based corporation with a proven record of transforming troubled schools into high performers. I talked with him about his objectives and long-term vision for the school.
Why should parents in Midtown want their children to attend University Preparatory Academy?
UPA is building a foundation to provide students with the academic skills needed to be successful beyond high school and college. We're focusing on doing something that hasn't historically been done in our community, finding ways to educate all students. Having new school leadership in place will assist with our progress. Ensuring a safe and orderly school will assist with that progress. Creating a school that embraces and works with our community will do that.
Can you assure parents of a competent staff, especially classroom teachers?
Our cornerstone has to be having a quality teacher in each classroom. We have to ensure not only that we are hiring the best and brightest, but that we support and train our teachers in the pedagogy necessary to assist our students with academic growth. We're extremely committed to developing our human capital in a way that our staff feels supported and nurtured, and in turn, our students feel supported and nurtured.
Is there a typical child at UPA?
There's no typical child at UPA. Children are children. We want to serve all students. We are designing the school to provide services to extend the learning of students who are above grade level, proficient and need acceleration. We're designing academic services for students who are below grade level and need to be accelerated. With community and parental support, anything is possible.
How does the school now handle discipline, a critical component of academic success?
The new administrative team arrived in January. We will not tolerate bullying or any behavior that negatively impacts or impedes the learning of other students. We want our parents and the greater community to feel safe and secure when their children are with us at school. Students need structure and order. We've put new support systems in place to ensure that. We've grown to the point where discipline isn't our biggest issue or focus. Getting our students prepared academically drives the focus of our school day.
As principal, what is your vision and long-term goal for UPA?
Over the next three to four years, we want UPA to be pushing further toward keeping its promise of providing all students, regardless of race, gender or background, a quality education. We hope to become an active participant in supporting and addressing the needs of students and families in the community.
Why did you accept this tough challenge?
I came to UPA because I feel as if I was called to do so. I'd been supervising schools and training principals all of over the country the last few years, and I loved my work. But when I toured the school and met the people in the community, I simply saw and felt the need. Eradicating poverty, building stronger families, and economic development are all driven by access to quality education for our community. We're losing generations of our children for a plethora of reasons. There's no other alternative for us to prosper than access to a quality education. I think this year will not be reflective of who we'll become, since we have had to make administrative changes midyear. Schools take three to five years to reach a level of excellence. But to see where we were in February compared to where we were in December is night and day. Our parents and community have truly responded well to our changes and the feedback has been positive.
Does your approach to learning come from a specific pedagogy?
Our pedagogical approach is simply centered on research based on best practice. We have decades of research that clearly defines the blueprint for improving schools. Excellent schools are highly collaborative organizations that focus on using data to inform instructional decisionmaking and utilizing interventions to address student needs. Excellent schools have nurturing environments that promote the academic, social and emotional development of students reflective of their individuals needs. Our issue in education is not that we don't have the knowledge to improve schools. It's simply a question of do we have the will and commitment to the best practices that are required on a daily basis to transform our schools. It requires collective inquiry and will, reflective in every adult in the building, from teachers to custodians to support staff. It requires an alignment of what we say we believe to what we actually do in terms of instructional practice each day.