In some Florida school districts, charter schools unite for influence, support

With 43 schools and seven more expected to open in the fall, the charter school community in Hillsborough County, Fla. has grown to the size of a small school district.

Which is why members of Charter School Leaders of Florida say having a local group to represent them is so important.

“We do feel as an organization …  that now more than ever, we need to work as a group,’’ said the group’s treasurer, Mark Haggett, who also directs Academies of RCMA, elementary and middle school charters in Wimauma.

The group’s name suggests it might serve the whole state, but for now it’s limited to Hillsborough. It began informally, nearly a decade ago, as a way for charter school principals to regularly meet – like traditional public school principals – and talk about best practices, training, assessments and funding. It also was a safe place for members to vent frustrations about the district and the Florida Department of Education.

In 2007, the principals formed a nonprofit and shifted focus.

“Our main goal was to work with the superintendent and really forge a true partnership between the schools and the district,’’ said Gary Hocevar, former principal of the charter, Terrace Community Middle School, and the leadership group’s past president.

The group also organized to help lobby on behalf of charter schools for more funding – “not just for charter schools, but funding for all education,’’ Hocevar said.

The group, now headed by Cametra Edwards, principal of Village of Excellence Academy in east Tampa, represents about 35 charters. It’s among a handful of such groups in the state.

“Such organizations are definitely something we want to encourage as a state and we have already discussed some ways in which we could help that along,’’ said Mike Kooi, who oversees the office of school choice for the Florida Department of Education.

Robert Haag, president of the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, said there are counties with groups similar to Hillsborough’s. In Broward County, where Haag is superintendent of Charter Schools of Excellence, charter leaders have met since 1997.

There were only five charter schools in the district then, he said. Today, there are 70.

“Every county, we encourage this,’’ Haag said. Meeting one another and talking about the issues – “that’s what we should be doing.’’

Miami-Dade County, with about 120 charters, also has a leadership council of charter principals, said Dwight Bernard, the district’s director of charter schools. The group meets quarterly with the district.

In Hillsborough, members of Charter School Leaders gather monthly and meet with the district quarterly. It’s a chance to talk about deadlines for what seems like endless paperwork to track fiscal management, funding, student counts and testing. And there’s always discussions on how to do more with less.

The group has become an “invaluable resource,’’ Haggett said, “especially for new principals.’’

Zenobia Cann became a first-time principal last fall when W.E. Phillips Learning Academy opened in Seffner. Her school has about 20 students in kindergarten through second grade. Next year, she said, there will be third-graders, with classes eventually going through fifth grade.

Charters have their own school boards, manage their own finances and select curriculum. Cann’s school plans to focus on enrolling children from the migrant community in east Hillsborough.

She joined Charter School Leaders because “there’s so much to learn.’’

Like how to grow your school (Cann hopes to have more than 50 students next year); how to attract teachers (she has four now); and how to make the most of state funding (with so few students, her operating budget is limited).

So far, her experience with Charter School Leaders has been excellent, she said. “They provide great support.’’

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