Despite pleas from parents, St. Petersburg charter school's fate remains uncertain

University Preparatory Academy, a kindergarten through eighth-grade charter school, opened in 2013. After its third straight F grade, it could be closed; it has 15 days to request a waiver.
University Preparatory Academy, a kindergarten through eighth-grade charter school, opened in 2013. After its third straight F grade, it could be closed; it has 15 days to request a waiver.
Published July 10, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — One by one, grumbling parents and grandparents, current and former teachers and community leaders filed into a second-floor classroom at University Preparatory Academy and took a seat.

They were there because they expected the south St. Petersburg charter school, once heralded by the community as the alternative to the area's failing schools, to receive its third consecutive F grade from the state. The state had already said three strikes meant the school's charter would be automatically terminated — and they gathered on short notice Friday morning to see what the school's governing board would do about it.

But after an impassioned hourlong meeting — interrupted by the news that their school indeed got an F — they left without answers.

University Prep, a kindergarten through eighth grade school, is on track to be the fifth charter school to close in the Pinellas County School District this year. The school is running out of time to make its case to stay open before the new school year starts next month, and district officials are still working on a backup plan should the school close and displace about 445 students.

A dozen public speakers pleaded with the school's governing board to keep the school open because, despite the school's failing grades, their children were achieving academically and thriving. The school opened in 2013, backed by a settlement obligating the Pinellas County School Board to try to create 500 charter-school seats for children in predominantly black neighborhoods.

"Our hope is being snatched away," said Deborah Washington, a pre-kindergarten educator whose grandchildren attend University Prep.

But the board, with one member present and three others on the phone, questioned whether the school was worth saving. To get a one-year reprieve from the state, University Prep must apply for a waiver and prove it did better on state standardized tests than its competition.

Its scores, however, were among the lowest in the district. Some were worse than the schools it once sought to compete against.

"Are we able to provide anything more than just a delay in what is happening today?" board chair Anthony Polazzi asked.

Members of the audience said the waiver was worth a shot.

"This is more than a calculable chance of prevailing," said Ric Davis, president of the Concerned Organization for Quality Education for Black Students. "This is a teachable moment."

Rick Wolfe, the district's charter school director, sat in the audience at the meeting. He said the district still supports University Prep and hopes the school files a waiver. Still, officials are working on a "worst-case scenario" plan that would place current students at other schools should University Prep close.

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The district responded differently when Windsor Preparatory Academy and East Windsor Middle Academy closed earlier this year because of financial and governance problems. They hustled to place more than 700 students in different schools.

"We feel that UPA should and hopefully (will) remain open," Wolfe said. "We did not feel that way with Windsor."

He said the district has discussed taking over the schools, just like the district tried to absorb Windsor Prep and East Windsor. But district officials worry about dealing with the school's lease, Wolfe said. And south St. Petersburg needs more school choice options.

During the Friday meeting, the state released school grades for 2016. Three of the five surrounding elementary schools that were previously among the lowest performing in the state surpassed University Prep; Fairmount Park and Lakewood elementaries received Ds, and Maximo Elementary received a C.

The board unanimously voted to delay the vote to consider the feedback from the meeting and see what legal argument it could craft to request a waiver from the state.

"We had every intention of coming in here today and making the decision," Polazzi said. "We've heard a lot of good support, a lot of thoughtfulness. … We'll tell you that in all likelihood if the vote had happened today, it would've been a negative vote."

According to state law, the school has 15 days to request a waiver.

But the date for the next board meeting, the last item on the agenda, was never set.

Contact Colleen Wright at or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright on Twitter.