ST. PETERSBURG — Three years ago, the founders of University Preparatory Academy believed they had the solution for students in south St. Petersburg.
The neighborhood public schools surrounding it frequently appeared on a list of the 300 lowest-performing elementaries in the state. And many saw promise in a new charter boasting single-gender classrooms with lengthened reading and math classes.
They were backed by a 2010 settlement obligating the Pinellas County School Board to try to create 500 charter school seats for children in predominantly black neighborhoods.
But when the state released its latest test results last week — the first since Florida shifted to new standards and tests — University Prep fared worse than the five schools it sought to compete against.
While the school did better than Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Melrose and Maximo elementaries in fifth-grade English language arts, most of its remaining results were comparable to, or below, those schools.
Only 8 percent of University Prep's fourth-graders, for example, passed the English language arts test — far below most of the other schools. And passing rates in math for University Prep's third-, fourth- and fifth-graders were at 10 percent or below.
The other schools, from which University Prep draws many of its students, have turned in some of the worst scores in the state in recent years and were featured in the Tampa Bay Times series, "Failure Factories." University Prep, located in a renovated building that once housed Southside Fundamental Middle School at 1701 10th St. S, enrolled 445 students this year in kindergarten through eighth grade and received $2.6 million in public funding.
'It just takes time'
The school's executive director, Darius Adamson, argues that many of its students come in performing behind their grade level and any gains they make aren't reflected in test scores. For example, a third-grader could come to the school with a first-grade reading level and improve to a second-grade level, but still fail the third-grade test.
The test results, he says, didn't surprise him.
"We've had some areas of growth and we have some areas that we have to grow in," Adamson said. "We know we're moving them. It just takes time."
He says the school needs five years to turn things around — which is similar to what the Pinellas County School District says when discussing its five struggling elementary schools in south St. Petersburg. Adamson says University Prep will keep its strong focus on literacy and work with a math curriculum that is more aligned to the Common Core standards used by the state.
But University Prep may be running out of time, depending on how the Florida Department of Education interprets a new law requiring a charter school's contract to be automatically terminated if it receives two consecutive F grades. The school received F's in 2014 and 2015, though last year's grades don't count against schools because of concerns over the test's validity.
According to an education department spokeswoman, the state will advise districts this summer on how to treat affected schools.
Rick Wolfe, the Pinellas district's charter school director, has made frequent visits to University Prep because of its F grades. He said the school has been following a mandated school improvement plan, which heavily emphasizes reading.
Should the school face termination, Wolfe said the district would advocate for it to stay open. He said his office has received few complaints about the school since Adamson arrived in January 2014 and has observed a positive school climate. He agreed it would take years for the school to turn around.
"That's tough, especially when you're coming into an area with a challenging population," Wolfe said.
University Prep's good standing with the district is why Craig Sher, executive chairman of the shopping center conglomerate Sembler Co., left the school's board about a year ago.
"I think we always knew it would take five to seven years to be an excellent school," he said. "Am I surprised? Yes. Am I disappointed? Yes, but I have a lot of faith in the folks there."
Meanwhile, some local black activists — even early advocates for University Prep — are holding the school to the same standard as the district-run schools.
Goliath Davis, a former police chief and deputy mayor who is active in the group Concerned Organization for Quality Education for Black Students, acknowledged the school faced challenges.
"While I understand all of that, my expectation for UPA is no different than it is for the district," he said.
Ric Davis, president of COQEBS, said he wanted to look at the school's interim assessments to determine whether progress is being made before forming an opinion.
"What I want to be is fair with them," he said. "I want to make sure I'm looking at all the data points."
Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego said supporting the school was one of his top priorities to satisfy the district's settlement. He said he hoped the district could continue its partnership with the school and reiterated the importance of the community's support.
"I think another thing it points to is this is difficult work," Grego said. "Just opening a charter school doesn't solve all of the issues.
Contact Colleen Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright on Twitter.