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Charter school falters in first year

Published Sep. 9, 2005

The Greek immersion school attracts fewer students and funds than projected and is seeking a grant to meet expenses.

The Athenian Academy, the country's first Greek immersion charter school, hoped to draw 80 pupils in its first year.

By the first day of school in August, the projection was 40 pupils in kindergarten and first grade. Enrollment dropped to 32 pupils by October and 20 in February.

School officials blame a variety of problems _ staff turnover, misunderstandings about what "Greek immersion" means and a lack of school bus service _ for the disappointing enrollment. Although many of those problems are fixed or nearly so, Athenian Academy is in serious financial trouble.

Superintendent Howard Hinesley reported to the Pinellas School Board last week that, without help, Athenian Academy could finish the year $53,000 in debt.

The school district is helping Athenian Academy secure a $30,000 grant to help make it to June. George Poumakis, president of the school's board, says fundraising efforts are being stepped up. The school's fourth director, who started in January, is starting a mass mailing to secure a new kindergarten class for the fall.

Hinesley and other district officials say they are not ready to recommend the school close. But they will continue to closely monitor the school's finances and review a required audit the school will supply in August.

"We don't want to do that (recommend closure) until a very last resort," Hinesley said.

School founders remain staunchly committed to the language immersion concept and pledge that Athenian Academy won't close. With the assistance of former School Board member Susan Latvala, they have brought in a new director, Melanie Fernandez.

Fernandez, who opened Pinellas' first charter school, knows what it's like to use a personal bank account for office supplies and payroll, just to keep a charter afloat. She knows how "horrible" the first year running a charter can be, between training staff and ordering supplies and working with parents.

In her first two months running Athenian Academy, Fernandez sees promise.

"This is a wonderful little school," said Fernandez, who does not speak Greek and is dividing her time between Academie Da Vinci, a fine arts program, and the Athenian Academy.

Charter schools are operated by private groups but receive public money, so they are considered public schools. Charter schools receive the same amount per student as other public schools, minus 5 percent for administrative costs.

Charters are eligible for some funding for building costs, as well as materials and technology. For each of the first two years, a charter can apply for a $70,000 state grant.

Doug Forth, a district budget official, said it became clear in early fall that Athenian Academy would struggle this year. For one thing, enrolling 40 pupils did not generate enough money. Fundraising was less than expected.

And founders rented a building whose monthly rent is $5,000, which is more than the school now receives per month for its enrollment. For that high rent, which will rise the next two years, Athenian Academy is using about one-third of the building.

As it adds a grade level each year, the Academy hopes to begin using more of the building.

School leaders have talked about tapping a line of credit if donations don't come in time, but Forth has cautioned against it.

"The rent is killing them," Forth said. "As in any business, you need working capital, whether it be from a grant or donations, to get started."

Even more than donations, the school's priority is to get pupils. That means Athenian Academy had to solve the problems that made students leave.

A new English teacher was brought in, one with decades of experience who was better able to control the students than previous teachers. The permanent Greek teacher started. Fernandez replaced a string of less-experienced directors. The school bought a surplus bus from the district, which it plans to use next year.

It's always difficult to lure parents to a brand-new school with no track record _ harder still, officials said, for a concept that is not widely understood. "Greek immersion" means the students learn half the day in Greek, half the day in English.

That approach means that, at least initially, young students might not appear to be progressing as quickly as those in English-only classrooms. One key will be continuing to attract a diverse group of pupils. Of the 21 students now enrolled, 11 have parents of Greek descent.

Despite Athenian Academy's rocky start, parents say they are pleased with the education their children are getting. They describe non-Greek children answering their teachers in Greek. They report Greek children more confident about speaking the language at home. They see students noticing that many English words derive from Greek.

Ian Ratcliffe, who is not Greek, said he is even trying to teach his parents the new language he is learning. Why is it a good idea to learn a second language?

Said Ian, 6: "Then you'll get smart."