It took only one meeting to convince Zanquesha Morgan to enroll her two boys into University Preparatory Academy, a new K-8 charter school in south St. Petersburg, Fla. It didn’t matter that she had never heard of the school, or its founder, or its approach to academics.
Like a lot of parents in this hardscrabble community along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street, Morgan was desperate. Four district schools in the predominantly black area earned F grades this year. Three more would have had it not been for a last-minute rule change by the state.
“I just knew I wanted another option,” Morgan said. “I came to the orientation and I was like, ‘Finally, someone has answered our prayers.’ ’’
What’s happening in this city of 280,000 on the west coast of Florida, better known for its sunshine, retirees and the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team, echoes what’s happening across the nation. Charter schools continue to grow enrollment by leaps and bounds because parents are lining up in droves, sometimes literally. In the case of University Prep, more than 800 applied, but because of capacity, only 530 got in.
According to a recent estimate from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 520,000 individual students were on charter school waiting lists last year – on top of the 2.3 million enrolled. As the situation in Florida shows, many parents are willing to roll the dice on an untested charter school because they’re so frustrated with existing options.
“I figured it’s got to be better than the public school,” said Timothy Gill, who brought his son and daughter to UPA after years at a nearby, F-rated district school. “Here, there’s less bullying and more education.”
The school’s founder and principal is Cheri Shannon, the former president and chief executive officer of the Florida Charter School Alliance. She modeled University Prep after a charter she headed in Kansas City, Mo., that aimed to prepare low-income minority students for college.
“It’s something that’s never been here before,’’ said Enoris Sly, a city worker who moved his 7-year-old daughter, Anoriay, from a private Christian school to UPA.
He came for the promise of rigorous curriculum, highly-skilled teachers and all the extras – Spanish, music, art, P.E. And because he could get all of that for free. Charter schools are public schools that operate independently from districts.