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Board expected to okay first charter

A new era in public schools could hatch here, in a small wooden house painted the color of a baby chick.

Academie Da Vinci, a year-old conservatory for dance, drama, art and music lessons, is expected to get permission Tuesday to run the county's first "charter school," a private educational enterprise financed in large part by public school money.

The school, at 1380 Pinehurst Road, would base its curriculum on special programs at Pinellas public schools, co-founder Melanie Fernandez said.

It would be arts-oriented, like the popular arts magnet at Perkins Elementary in St. Petersburg.

It would be writing- and literature-oriented, like the program at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Elementary in Pinellas Park.

It would emphasize computer education the way several schools do, most notably Frontier Elementary in Largo, Fernandez said.

And, it would mix the 40 kindergarten through fifth-grade pupils in just two classrooms, the way some classes are mixed at Mount Vernon and Cross Bayou elementary schools in St. Petersburg. Children would study together in multiaged groups and would work at their own pace.

The school's name, she said, sums up the kind of Renaissance pupil Academie Da Vinci would hope to attract.

"Leonardo was a well-rounded fellow," she said. "That's the kind of child we want to attract. Well-rounded."

Fernandez and her partner, Nancy Wetmore, got the idea for this kind of school about two years ago.

Fernandez, a former teacher who had spent about 15 years raising her children, was about to complete her doctorate in education. She also was working as a graduate assistant at the University of South Florida, supervising teaching interns.

Wetmore has a long show-business background from a stint in the June Taylor Dancers to professional theater to a part in a movie called Scream Bloody Murder.

For several years, she had been running a children's theater group in New Port Richey and was looking for a new challenge.

They decided to combine their strengths, they said.

A year ago, they opened the Academie Da Vinci, where children come after school, Saturdays and summers to learn dance, art, computers and music.

(The spelling of the school's name, Fernandez pointed out, is old English. "It's not misspelled," she said.)

About the time the academy opened, the state Legislature passed a law allowing charter schools.

Florida is one of about 20 states to adopt the charter school concept, intended to expand the way public education is administered. An independent charter school, which gets public money for each student it enrolls, must meet health, safety and achievement guidelines regular public schools follow.

But charter schools are exempt from a lot of the rules and regulations accused of squelching innovation in traditional public schools.

Academie Da Vinci was Pinellas' first applicant, and Fernandez is confident she and Wetmore can make it work.

"If there were anybody to take a chance on," she said, "it would be me."

Fernandez is close friends with School Board member Susan Latvala. The two once had a real estate business together.

Fernandez said she would expect Latvala to be the first to speak up if her proposal was bad, and Latvala has been complimentary.

Latvala said she is excited about Fernandez' plan.

Her friendship won't influence her vote, Latvala said.

"I can't issue a charter if I can't be comfortable with what they're going to do," she said, "because (as a board member) I'm on the line. . . . You don't want any of them to fail."

Board vice chairwoman Lucile Casey agreed.

"Charter schools still have to be under the scrutiny of the School Board and state law and have to be able to sustain themselves," Casey said. She also thinks Academie Da Vinci's proposal is a good one.

"Every year," she said, "we hear from parents who would like us to have more art and music in our schools. They are the ones who should be applying."

Board chairwoman Corinne Freeman said she did not want to discuss anything about the proposal until Tuesday.

Most of the details of the charter have been worked out, but a few difficulties remain.

The school would get about $146,000 a year from the school system. It also expects to raise at least $5,000 from some sort of money-making activity.

That combined $151,000 would cover salaries, supplies, insurance, utilities, rent for portable classrooms and assorted expenses.

The 1,600-square-foot, 1920s building would continue to be the school's dance studio and office. The small computer lab would become a library.

Portable buildings on the rear of the 1-acre lot would hold the two classrooms.

Academie Da Vinci would depend on its the after-school program and its after-hours private lessons to pay the mortgage and other costs.

School Board member Linda Lerner said she is concerned that the school hasn't planned to provide health insurance for its staff.

"That's important to me, too," Fernandez said, "but I just didn't see where to squeeze it out."

The school would hire two full-time teachers, who would have to be state-certified. Fernandez said she hopes one would have a background in music and one a background in art. She also expects to hire a part-time instrumental and choral music teacher, she said.

The teachers, Fernandez and Wetmore would each earn $24,000 a year.

Wetmore would teach dance and drama and help with administrative duties. Fernandez would be an administrator and teach computers.

Pupils would apply for admission and be chosen by random lot, the same way children are admitted to the public schools' magnet programs.

Superintendent Howard Hinesley made it clear that the school must have at least three black children among its 40 pupils to comply with the federal desegregation order.

"You understand you can't open unless you have them?" he asked Fernandez at a recent meeting.

The law that allows charter schools also mandates that transportation be provided within a reasonable distance of the school. The academy is trying to find out if it can use its van to pick up children, Fernandez said.

If the board approves the proposal Tuesday, Fernandez expects to start taking applications in April.

The school would be limited to about 40 pupils the first two years, but Fernandez has a zoning request pending before the city of Dunedin that would allow the school to expand.

She doesn't anticipate going higher than about 60 pupils, though, she said.

"I think the smallness will give us a very nurturing environment," she said. "I hope there will be a very close-knit family feeling here."

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