1. Opinion

Editorial: Charter school needs to mend fences

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Published Oct. 21, 2013

Every time a charter school opens, there is an implicit trust that its leaders will deliver on their promises in exchange for public money. But two months after opening, University Preparatory Academy in south St. Petersburg has at least twice broken its word. It failed to establish a local board of advisers before the school opened, and it used a bus company that had not met Pinellas County School Board approval. There are signs of other trouble, including fleeing students and departing faculty and staff. University Prep needs to mend fences with those community leaders who initially vouched for it, and the School Board should maintain close watch.

From the start, University Prep had big ambitions on a tight schedule: establishing a school for up to 694 students in grades K-8 less than eight months after winning initial district approval. An influential group of advocates called the Learning Village thought University Prep's leaders were up to the challenge. The group had ties to the plaintiffs in the Crowley class-action lawsuit over black student performance that the district settled in 2010. Learning Village told the School Board that it saw the University Prep application as key to fulfilling one of the settlement's goals: creating 500 new charter school spaces for black students. It also backed University Prep's successful bid to open in the shuttered Southside Fundamental Middle School.

University Prep founder and now principal Cheri Shannon repeatedly promised to integrate the school into the community and establish a local board of advisers. But as the Tampa Bay Times' Lisa Gartner reported, that hasn't happened. Starting in the spring, disagreements arose over the functions of the local board versus the University Prep parent company's governing board. Craig Sher, past chairman of the Pinellas Education Foundation, has been appointed to the governing board. But the local board was never formed. Former police Chief Goliath Davis and Bill Heller, dean of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg education college — members of the Learning Village — and Ricardo Davis, president of the Concerned Organization for Quality Education for Black Students, haven't talked to Shannon in months.

Since the school opened Aug. 19, at least 77 children, four faculty members and the school's curriculum director have left. And despite explicit warnings from the school district, the school was discovered to be using an unapproved bus company after a Sept. 9 bus accident in which children sustained minor injuries.

Shannon, who ran a Kansas City, Mo., charter school, has suggested the problems are normal upheaval in a charter school's first year, and school district officials say some problems — such as the delay in getting textbooks — are not uncommon. A survey last month of departing families also turned up no actionable items, the district said. For all the churn in enrollment, the school district said last week that University Prep's enrollment stood at 470, up from 340 on the school's opening day. After the Times asked about the local board, University Prep is soliciting applications for the local board.

University Prep needs to follow its contract and mend fences with community leaders, who also need to be willing to come back to the table. The alternative — more failure in a south St. Petersburg school — is in no one's interest.