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  1. The Education Gradebook

Hillsborough headed for a new mark: 25,000 charter school students

TAMPA — Three more charter schools will join the Hillsborough County system this year, pushing the number of students in these tax-funded, but privately operated institutions to well over 10 percent of the enrollment.

District officials predict that 24,563 students will attend charter schools this year. That's less than the 28,679 the schools projected. But Jenna Hodgens, general director of charter schools for the district, said she believes her estimate is more realistic.

State reports predict there will be 216,000 students in Hillsborough's charter and district-run schools combined.

Charter Schools USA, based in Fort Lauderdale, continues to lead the way in the charter sector. The management group will open its sixth school, Creekside, this year.

Early estimates show the school, based in Riverview, will serve 661 students. Some longer-established schools in the Charter Schools USA group — such as Henderson Hammock and Winthrop — enroll more than 1,000 students each.

In Plant City, ICan Lighthouse is preparing to open, with approval for 320 students.

Both Creekside and ICan will ultimately serve grades K-8.

Also on deck is Florida Connections Academy, a virtual school that says it will start with 750 students in grades K-12.

The school district's charter office greenlights about half the applications it receives each year, sending most of the others back for revisions.

With more than 50 charter schools now operating in Hillsborough, close to $150 million in state education dollars flow through the district and into those schools each year.

But that is not a complete loss, as those students are no longer served by district schools. And the district gets $2.8 million to cover administrative costs.

The pipeline, however, is still wide open.

The School Board, at its meeting on Tuesday, will be asked to approve applications or contracts for two high schools: BridgePrep Academy of Advanced Studies, which will open in Riverview with 550 students, and Dr. Kiran C. Patel High School, with 300 students.

Two existing schools — Focus Academy in Temple Terrace and Legacy Preparatory near Sulphur Springs — have been in limbo because of disputes with the district, but are expected to get extended contracts in the near future and will be given provisional contract extensions on Tuesday.

The district flagged both schools over management arrangements that appeared to have relatives supervising one another, in violation of state law. Both schools denied wrongdoing, and both cases went to mediation.

Focus revised its management structure to eliminate the appearance of a conflict. And Carl Warren, the chairman of Legacy, said one of the employees in question — the principal's daughter — resigned her position the day after mediation.

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.

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