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Charter school cruises along

Sixth-graders studied ancient Greek culture in one room of the modular metal building, while seventh-graders learned about phases of the moon in another.

Eighth-graders, meanwhile, were miles away at Lake Townsen Regional Park for a hands-on lesson about Florida's cultural and environmental heritage. Wherever possible, teachers worked to link the various lessons to state education requirements and to each other.

"The goal is to give kids that don't learn well compartmentalized a broader view," said Nevin Siefert, co-director of Gulf Coast Academy of Science and Technology. "You see kids that have struggled in the past really succeeding."

Nine weeks into the 2003-04 academic year, Gulf Coast Academy _ Hernando County's first charter school _ has overcome most of the glitches and hurdles that plagued its planning stages to become a smoothly operating campus of 107 children, seven educators and scads of parent volunteers.

"I thought it was doing very well," said Cathy Wooley-Brown, director of the Florida Charter School Resource Center, after visiting the campus at Lamson Avenue and Tillery Road for an assessment. "They seemed to have all their systems in place. Everything was orderly. . . . I was extremely pleased."

As Gulf Coast Academy progresses, the School Board must decide whether it wants to add another charter school to the district fold.

Charter schools set their own curricula, discipline codes and other rules and do not have to follow all of the state education regulations. They are public schools, and the students must meet state education requirements, including passing the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

For the most part, they need School Board approval to operate in a county.

Academies of America, an Ormond Beach-based nonprofit company, has applied to open both an elementary and a middle charter school in Hernando County. The School Board will review the proposals on Tuesday.

District staffers have raised several questions and concerns about the applications, including criticism that the charter schools would offer nothing the public schools do not already have. Also, they have observed that the applications appear to be a cookie-cutter form, also submitted with minor changes in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

The group since has withdrawn its applications from Pasco and Pinellas, while the Hillsborough School Board rejected Academies' charter request.

"They're going to have to convince me," said Hernando board member Robert Wiggins, generally a staunch supporter of charter schools. "The approach they're taking almost makes it look like they're in it for the money. I'd like to see them become familiar with the community and learn what the community wants."

In its application and subsequent updates, Academies of America has shown no evidence of community support for its plan, as required by state law. It has, however, advertised in local newspapers seeking backing.

Gulf Coast Academy had no such problems.

Though it did not document its local interest in its application, Gulf Coast Academy proved it had ardent supporters when the School Board threatened to keep the school closed until 2004 because the building was not going to be ready at the start of the 2003-04 year. About 100 parents and children came to board meetings and pledged to volunteer their services to prepare the school.

They made good on their promise, and the school opened two weeks after the public schools began classes in August. Just three students who began the year at Gulf Coast Academy have transferred out.

For the most part, all indications are that the school is well on its way to success.

Almost all students are passing all of their classes, and field trips and after-school programs are shaping up, Gulf Coast Academy co-director Joe Gatti said. School Board concerns that the school's budget might not hold up _ an issue that nearly killed the charter initiative _ also have eased as full state funding has become available, Siefert said.

Instead of getting money for 100 children, as originally budgeted, the school is receiving funding for 107 students. Also, some of those students are in exceptional education programs, which generates more state dollars per person. Siefert said the extra cash has helped pad the school's monthly reserves.

Perhaps best, Siefert said, is that the school has been able to craft courses in a way that the mainstream schools, bogged down by the laws that charter schools need not follow, cannot do.

"I love it," he said. "The ability to basically dictate the curriculum and make it worthwhile, make it applicable to the students' lives, is important to me. I found that when you're a teacher, you don't have the ability to do that."

Students, parents and staff members have only good words about the school. Complaints, if there are any, have not made their way to School Board members or the district staff members who oversee the charter program.

"For us, we're thrilled to bits. We're really, really pleased," said Pat Reeman, whose daughter, Stephanie, attends the school. "For us, it just feels right. It's real friendly; the classes are controlled. We're happy."

Sixth-grader Gideon Diaz said he looks forward to the weekly field days, where the students spend time outdoors combining physical education with academic projects.

"This school is a very great place because it has all these activities," he said.

After-school efforts include required study halls to make up failed assignments and special programs such as Tae-Bo aerobics, Spanish and Pet Club. Also available are weekend trips to places like Cape Canaveral and the Florida Keys, where students combine fun and learning.

Sixth-grader Marissa Downing said she decided to try the school because she heard it would be more challenging than other public schools. She said her expectations had been met.

"I'm actually excited to wake up and come to school," said Eric Millican, also a sixth-grader. "I'm becoming so skilled, and I like it so much. It's different from anything I've ever experienced."

Language arts teacher Carla Grisso-DeGaetano left Powell Middle School to work at the charter school. She said the school allowed her to teach as she wants.

"It's more challenging for the kids. There's higher expectations," she said. "The students know what is expected of them, and they're more apt to follow that direction because they want to succeed."

She also expressed pleasure with the size of the staff, which allows teachers to collaborate on course work and keep expectations high.

Science teacher Shawn Walker, meanwhile, said he enjoyed the eagerness that students and parents alike have shown toward the school. He said he likes being able to do so many hands-on projects, and overall the school is "going great."

Despite the early signals of success, Gatti said that room for improvement remains.

He said he hoped to see more integration of the curriculum among the disciplines and more hands-on programs in the field, among other things.

Charter school board chairman Kevin O'Connor added that he looked forward to writing better-focused policies that are more tailored to the students' needs.

Gatti said he was grateful that the charter school's relationship with the school district has improved. He said he's thrilled that so many students are excited enough about the school to stay after classes for programs.

"We're very pleased," he said, "and we're very fortunate."

_ Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solocheksptimes.com.

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