Pinellas charter schools come under scrutiny

Four are met with skepticism and hard questions when presenting their plans for improvement.
Published September 18 2014

LARGO — The point of charter schools is to do better for students. They have the freedom to think outside the box, innovating with longer school days or years, gender-segregated classrooms and more, all in the name of providing better options for children than the traditional system can.

But four Pinellas County charter schools came under fire this week from the School Board after standardized test scores indicated subpar student performance.

University Preparatory Academy, Windsor Preparatory Academy and Newpoint Pinellas Academy all earned F grades last school year, while Alfred Adler Elementary earned a D grade.

Newpoint is in Clearwater, while the other three charters are in St. Petersburg.

The schools were required to present plans for improvement to the board, which reviewed them at a Tuesday workshop.

Adler's principal, Greg DeCosmo, said his 89-student school provided a nurturing environment. The school performed better than the district average in reading, but below the average in math and far below it in writing. Just 9 percent of students showed proficiency on the FCAT writing test.

DeCosmo said this was an area the school was targeting. They would also spend this year trying to bring up the achievement of its lowest performing students in all subject areas.

"We're not tucked away in an affluent suburb," he said. "We're right in the middle of St. Petersburg, and that's because that's where the real educational issues are that need to be resolved."

School Board members were skeptical of Adler's improvement plan, saying it lacked the specific steps to make its goals a reality.

"The 'how' is not there for me," board member Robin Wikle said.

Board member Rene Flowers said she wanted to see "what it is that you plan to do, steps A, B and C" while board chairwoman Carol Cook said she wanted to see Adler name staff members responsible for making each goal happen.

Christopher Wiand, the director of Newpoint, said the Clearwater middle school wants to increase the number of students taking algebra 1. He also hopes to boost FCAT scores, and thus the school's grade, by better monitoring data throughout the school year.

Windsor Preparatory Academy also took hard questions from board members after principal Jessica Clements said the charter school had decided to use the traditional school system's curriculum this year.

"What are you doing differently than we're doing in Pinellas County schools? You're using the same curriculum, doing the same testing," said Cook.

Clements said that Windsor Prep's approach to instruction differed from the school system's because they often broke students into small groups.

After the charter school leaders left, School Board members said they were unsatisfied with some of the responses to their questions, including Clements'.

"I think your question at the end was profound, and it wasn't answered," said Wikle, while Flowers said, "We do big groups and small groups, that's what we do."

Superintendent Mike Grego agreed, saying he was "glad" he wasn't the one to have to say it. "The whole concept (of charters) was once an innovative, let's see what we can learn from them situation," he said. Instead, "in many ways we're learning together."

Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner@tampabay.com. Follow @lisagartner.

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