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Pinellas School Board approves three charters, denies one

Officials gave a green light to a new secondary school for at-risk students and renewed contracts with two existing charter schools in St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park.

Pinellas County school officials Tuesday approved the opening of one new charter school, extended contracts for two others already operating in the district, and denied another aiming to be the country’s first vegan public school.

The newcomer is Northstar Academy, a charter school designed to serve students who have struggled and possibly even dropped out of traditional school. After a unanimous vote, it will open in Pinellas County next year.

At first, Northstar will serve students in grades 7 through 12. It will add sixth grade in its third year of operation, eventually reaching a full capacity of 650 students, Pinellas charter school director Rick Wolfe told the board.

The school’s location has not been determined, but those behind it have suggested south St. Petersburg or Clearwater, he said. The campus will be managed by Edison Learning, a company that claims to offer “progressive solutions” for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

Wolfe said the school will target kids who didn’t do well in a regular school environment and provide a “last-ditch effort” to those who are significantly behind their peers. It’s possible that some students at the school could improve enough to return to their zoned high schools, he added.

“Maybe this is an opportunity for those children to have a chance," board member Eileen Long said at the meeting.

Chairwoman Rene Flowers, who represents schools in south St. Petersburg, was supportive, too, but more cautious. She said she’ll be watching the school carefully.

“Some of the entities that come into our community, they don’t hold to the promises that they’re making," she said. “We want students to have choice, options. But we also want to make sure if they’re in our county that these students are receiving what they’ve been told that they’ll receive.”

The School Board also approved a two-year extension with MycroSchool Pinellas, a charter in St. Petersburg that opened in 2012 to serve at-risk high school students.

“What we’re seeing is an increase in the graduation rate,” Wolfe said in recommending renewal of the school’s contract. “That’s what we want to see."

Two years ago, he said, only 14 percent of students at the school graduated. The rate doubled in 2018, and is expected to top 30 percent this year. Staff would have recommended a five-year extension had there been more growth, Wolf said.

Just before the board’s unanimous vote to approve MycroSchool’s extension, Flowers addressed its principal, who was sitting in the audience.

“Thank you for continuing to fight to move the students forward,” she said. “You have a challenging population ... so thank you for continuing to work with the students."

The School Board also voted unanimously to grant another two-year extension to Plato Academy Pinellas Park, which earned a D grade from the state last year.

“That is the reason for the two-year renewal and not anything beyond that, because we want to monitor their progress,” Wolfe said, adding that the school submitted an improvement plan that was approved by the state.

The board heard school principal Lisa Cunningham discuss the plan at a workshop in September. She said multiple factors, like poor attendance, loss of staff mid-year and low morale, contributed to the low grade, but promised the school is working hard to improve.

Board member Nicole Carr brought up those issues Tuesday, praising Wolfe and his team for limiting the school’s renewal to two years “so that it can be more closely monitored.”

King Charter School was denied with a unanimous vote by the board. Its application said the school would aim to be the country’s first-ever vegan school and provide an immersive tri-lingual curriculum.

“There were significant areas of weakness,” Wolfe said of the school’s application.

Contact Megan Reeves at Follow @mareevs.