The Next Big Thing in Tampa Bay-area charter schools could be a high school, funded by a well-known entrepreneur and competing openly with posh private schools.
Organizers of the Dr. Kiran C. Patel High School on Tuesday gave the Tampa Bay Times a tour of the construction site near Interstate-75 and Fowler Avenue.
And the man whose name is on the building made his vision for the place very clear: A first-class school offering the best education available in Hillsborough County, free from the constraints of teachers' unions and government bureaucracy.
"My vision is that we should provide an opportunity for the students whose families cannot afford the tuition at a place like Berkley Prep," said Patel, a cardiologist and founder of WellCare, the Tampa-based managed health care business.
"And the challenge that we have for parents now is that choices are very limited. The dream here is to create a high school where students can go and then get into any university. And I believe that in the public school system, there are some limitations."
When the Times pointed out that the public school system offers magnet programs that include engineering, International Baccalaureate and performing arts, and that the local high schools send students to Harvard, Yale, West Point and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Patel said the public schools still do not truly rival private schools.
One issue is the atmosphere. “If there are some students who are not interested and not willing to learn, it drags the class or the teacher,” he said.
In the same breath, Patel acknowledged that "a bright student anywhere will succeed."
And he traced his views on school choice to his childhood. "I was born in Zambia, and for Indians there was no high school," he said. "Quite a few of my friends did not reach the heights that I reached."
With that perspective, Patel is overseeing - and financing - what could be a revolutionary venture for the Tampa Bay area.
Patel High, which will open for freshman students this August, will specialize in project-based learning.
That’s not a new concept, said principal Marlee Strawn, who last worked as an assistant principal at Bell Creek Academy, a charter.
But project-based learning is largely unknown in Hillsborough, and the school has hired a consultant to help launch the program.
She explained the concept this way: If students are studying about viruses, there will be science lessons on how viruses spread. There will be history lessons on the bubonic plague. There will be math lessons about statistics and probability of contracting the virus. And there will be a literature component.
The architecture of the 67,000 square-foot building - underwritten, for $20 million, by Patel himself - supports this type of instruction, with meeting rooms and a spacious lounge where students can work together.
“We want to offer a private school atmosphere,” Strawn said, and part of that is the size - an estimated 600 students when all four grades are filled. “I’m going to know every student’s name and I’m going to know their parents’ names,” she said.
A small campus also makes it easier to staff the school. "We can hire 12 teachers who are passionate about project-based learning," Strawn said.
Strawn described a “power hour” every day, when students can combine lunch with time to meet with teachers for tutoring, take part in clubs or collaborate on their work.
There will be no paid management company. And, so far, they have had a warm reception from school district leaders.
Patel has invested elsewhere in Hillsborough, including an early learning center at Shaw Elementary in North Tampa. So he isn’t just about charter schools.
But he had some very direct words about the unions, which have little use for charters.
“The challenge in today’s world is, everybody is forgetting what a responsibility is, and they are looking for, what is my right?” he said. “I feel that in this country, it is not money that is the problem. The government is spending more money than on any place on earth. And the output is not there. The teachers’ unions and the bureaucracy prevent all those things.”
Specifically, he said, they get in the way of flexibility. A math teacher won’t also teach music, or coach a sport, without a stipend. Sports facilities are locked tight on weekends, when children could be enjoying them. He sees schools like this one as an alternative. "We need to have control of all those rules, not someone sitting 200 miles away,” he said.
And don’t tell him charters are destroying public education. “If we create more choices, it will be beneficial to the whole system," he said. "Because you create competition. Creating options and choices is good.”
Once the school opens, Patel said he hopes not to be its only benefactor. It will get its share of per-student funding from the state. And, as at other charter schools, a parent-teacher-organization will hold fundraisers.
“My hope is to see a sense of belonging,” Patel said. “Participation cannot always be measured in dollars and cents. On this earth, our time is given to us by God, and it is fixed. I can make a lot of money. But my time might be more valuable than dollars and cents.”