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Charter schools support wobbly

The School Board on Tuesday continued to question whether the latest charter school applicant's proposal was right for Hernando County.

"You certainly are a good messenger, but I don't see anybody behind you," board member Jim Malcolm told the principals of Academies of America, the Volusia County firm seeking to open two schools in Spring Hill. "I trust that you mean to do everything that you say, but I don't have anything to fall back on."

Malcolm, a self-avowed charter school advocate, led the charge against Academies of America, saying he would not back the group's proposal without demonstrated community support. He was not alone.

Other board members suggested that community support translates into filled seats. They were skeptical that Academies of America would enroll 400 students, even with increased crowding in the public school system, because little had been done to sell the group's plan for a middle school and an elementary school.

Making matters worse, members said, the firm had made no effort to distinguish itself or to show its past successes. Board member Gail David talked about how she had to "sell" her son as a commodity to college baseball coaches to win him a scholarship he otherwise might not have received.

She said she didn't see such initiative from the firm. "What I see is somebody saying, "Trust me.' "

Board member Robert Wiggins said Academies of America would have done better to focus for several months on a community it wanted to be in, rather than applying in five counties with a boilerplate form and seeing what stuck. Already, the group has withdrawn applications in Pasco and Pinellas counties and has been rejected in Hillsborough.

A sister company, Academies of Excellence, has failed to win a charter in five east coast counties.

Director Douglas Jackson acknowledged that his group's approach was a "very bad decision."

"We should have targeted exactly where we wanted to have the initial schools to create a track record," he said. "One of those areas is Hernando."

He attempted, with little success, to persuade the board that the curriculum his group is presenting is innovative and different, with one computer per two students used regularly in the classroom and foreign languages taught at every grade level. He added that his group had been successful with a pilot program in Volusia County, though he offered no proof at the meeting.

Ultimately, he asked the board what he could do to win more backing when the board votes on the charter Nov. 18. Chairman John Druzbick replied that anything to bolster his cause, such as letters of support, only could help.

Druzbick noted that Academies of America has several disadvantages, not the least of which being that no one in the community knows anything about it or its participants. Also, he added, the group has no known track record.

Jackson told the board he recognized its desire to see community support and would bring proof it exists in time for the Nov. 18 meeting.

Hernando County has one charter school, Gulf Coast Academy of Science and Technology, which opened in August. Charter schools receive public funding but are not bound by all state regulations governing school operations.

_ Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at 754-6115 or