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  1. Education

Florida's 'Schools of Hope' plan is just now taking off. Tampa, Miami are first in line.

TAMPA — A state program approved two years ago to give Florida families an alternative to struggling public schools is finally taking root, and Hillsborough County will be one of its earliest proving grounds.

The controversial "schools of hope" concept, championed by Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran when he was Speaker of the House in 2017, set out to lure high-quality charter school operators to Florida, provided they established campuses in areas of poor school performance. Lining up the operators took awhile. But now two of them are ready to do business, even as the program continues to be challenged in court.

The Knowledge is Power Program, known as KIPP, is operating in Miami and Texas-based IDEA Public Schools is preparing to open four schools in Tampa.

Both organizations were founded by veterans of Teach for America, the nonprofit organization that sends educators to low-income schools for two-year assignments. Both also have national profiles, although the IDEA schools are concentrated largely in Texas and other parts of the Southwest.

The Hillsborough County School Board approved the IDEA plan on Tuesday after a discussion that focused largely on the board's lack of options.

Jenna Hodgens, Hillsborough's general director of charter schools, told the board that the 2017 law, which was designed to help operators with a record of success cut through bureaucracy, gives school boards 60 days to approve a plan once it is submitted. Tuesday was the 59th day, she said.

Had the board postponed its decision or denied it, Hillsborough risked penalties of more than $2 million.

Passage of the law, known as House Bill 7069, led to a legal challenge that is still ongoing. School boards that sued contend it is unconstitutional because it intrudes on the decision-making powers of local school districts and creates a public school system that is not uniform. The 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee will hear arguments on June 11.

Hillsborough's Schools of Hope plan was the first of its kind approved in Florida, although Miami's KIPP schools — scheduled for a School Board vote on Wednesday — will open sooner.

A school of hope must operate within five miles of district schools with poor records. IDEA settled on two, after discussions with the district: Oak Park Elementary, which is rated F, and Robles Elementary, which has a D.

Under IDEA's formula, each school will open in 2021 for grades K-2, expanding through fifth grade in later years. They will share campuses with middle schools that will open with Grade 6 and later add grades 7 and 8. High school grades will be added as well.

Each of the two school entities will serve as many as 1,500 students.

Appearing before the School Board, Adam Miller of the Florida Department of Education's charter office spoke highly of IDEA, which stands for Individuals Dedicated to Excellence and Achievement.

"They have this amazing track record around the country," Miller said. "For 13 consecutive years, every one of their graduating seniors have gone to college. Not everyone has graduated college. But 100 percent college acceptance and enrollment."

IDEA operates 79 schools nationwide with 45,000 students, Miller told board members. Ninety-five percent of the students are minorities — mostly Hispanic — and 89 percent qualify to receive free school lunch.

Both Robles and Oak Park are already involved with multiple school improvement projects. They are Achievement Schools, part of a group of 50 campuses that have been receiving extra attention and resources from the district this year.

They also are state turnaround schools, and Oak Park is getting even more assistance from Phalen Leadership Academies, an Indiana organization that was designated this year as the school's "external operator" under yet another state initiative.

Charter schools typically can accept students from any geographic area. But under the Schools of Hope program, they are supposed to give priority to students who are underserved.

Hodgens told the board that IDEA agreed that 75 percent of its Tampa students will be from communities served by "persistently low performing" schools. Hillsborough now has 13 schools on that state list.

Information from News Service of Florida was used in this report. Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol on Twitter.

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