Parents hope to revive F-rated charter school poised for closure

Travis Pillow

The parents love the school, even though the state says it’s failing. So against all odds, they’re looking for options to stave off its closure.

Shing Star charter school

Shining Star Academy of the Arts

Shining Star Academy of the Arts, a charter school in Columbia County, Fla., received F grades from the state in its first two years of operation. Under state law, it must lose its charter. But supporters say its music, drama and arts programs provide unique options to rural students in North Florida.

So they’ve come up with a plan. Over the next three months, while the current school winds down, they want to fast-track an application for a new, academically revitalized institution that could take over in the middle of the school year, serving the same children in the same location under new leadership.

That scenario would likely be unprecedented for a Florida charter school that faces closure under the state’s “double-F” law. Getting the local school board to approve the plan may be a long shot. But there’s nothing in state law that prevents supporters from trying. They say they plan to raise the idea at the board’s meeting Tuesday, when it’s scheduled to formally terminate the school’s charter.

Shining Star’s attributes, including its heavy focus on the arts, drew parents from surrounding rural counties, undeterred by its academic struggles. Sometimes, there’s a big disconnect between what regulators and parents think is a good school.

“My kids had never been able to learn music,” said Takeya Cray, who said she planned to keep her fifth grader and eighth grader enrolled as long as the school stayed open. “Now, one of them plays the guitar, one of them plays the cello. I like that.”

Tony Buzzella, the founder and current principal, opened the Shining Star more than two years ago, not long after the death of his friend and mentor, the prominent Lake City musician and educator Alfonso Levy. The two men envisioned a K-8 school where children could learn to play instruments and cultivate a love for the arts. Buzzella said the school had realized key parts of that vision – as he put it, “More arts, no bullies.”

What was lacking, especially in the early going, was academics. Particularly math.

In the 2012-13 school year, one out of four fourth graders scored a 3 or higher on the FCAT math tests. In other grades, the numbers were worse. Buzzella made changes. He replaced a math teacher and extended the school day. Test scores rose in some areas in the second year, but remained among the lowest in the county, and the school still got an F.

Buzzella said the school had shown improvement, and one more year would be enough to right its course.

Many parents – some of whom had previously eschewed the public school system – were in his corner.

“How many schools do you go into where the kids like the principal?” asked Christina Sivik, one of three neighbors who drive their children to Shining Star from neighboring Suwanee County. She had home-schooled her children for 13 years before deciding to enroll her daughter, who wanted the chance to participate in band and chorus. She added: “The scores still may be low but the improvement in one year, to me, is amazing.”

There was a learning curve on the administrative side, too. During last week’s conference call with the state Board of Education, Buzzella said the school serves a much higher proportion of students who qualify for federally subsidized lunches than appear in the state statistics, but the school had initially struggled to keep track of them.

That learning curve can be especially pronounced among so-called mom-and-pop schools that are among the first charter schools to open in their communities.

When the state board agreed last week not to offer waivers to Shining Star and two other double-F charters, board member Marva Johnson suggested the state look for ways to help schools improve if they struggle in their first year. The law, she noted, spells out “very specific” requirements for schools that seek waivers. They had to demonstrate greater learning gains that outpaced nearby schools that serving similar students, a standard the board agreed the three schools did not meet.

The state’s double-F rule represents the trade-off at the core of the charter school movement. In exchange for more regulatory freedom, they face stricter academic accountability. Many charter school supporters who advocate new, innovative schools also call for poor performers to be shut down. Florida’s waiver provision is supposed to create a cushion for relatively new schools that open in disadvantaged areas.

State Sen. John Legg, chairman of the Education Committee and co-founder of a successful, arts-themed charter school in Pasco County, said if a new charter school caters to students who have struggled in the past, “we need to allow the appropriate time for them to make a difference.” At the same time, though, taxpayers need assurances that public schools run by private organizations are meeting academic standards.

“If you’ve been open for several years, and you have a double F, then you need to be held accountable for that,” he said.

For low-performing schools, shutting down – or, more commonly, reconstituting themselves under a new administration – isn’t always a bad thing. In a sense, the nascent proposal at Shining Star, if approved, would be similar to the arrangements made by many traditional public schools that face mandatory interventions. They must shake up their administrative ranks and make other changes in an effort to raise test scores. But they are seldom forced to close.

Shining Star is hoping for a reprieve that would work like this: Once the local school board votes to terminate the charter, the school would have 90 days to close. Buzzella said in three months, the school could shut down, for good, possibly on the Friday before a week-long Thanksgiving break. Its successor institution could open 10 days later, on a Monday, under a new charter, in the same cluster of portable classrooms and brick buildings.

Getting the request approved, though, may be a tall order. Keith Hatcher, the Columbia County administrator who helps administer the district’s charter schools, said the district first received word of the proposal within hours of the state board’s decision, and began researching the possibilities.

Hatcher emphasized he couldn’t speak for the school board, which will make its own decision about the plan. Still, he noted, “there is no precedent for it.” The board would have to agree to waive the traditional Aug. 1 application deadline for a school hoping to open the next academic year. It would then have to vet the proposal and green-light it in enough time to allow for the extraordinary step of opening the new school mid-year. “There’s just really not enough time to do that,” he said.

One of the parents leading the charge to keep the school is Ron Natale, a father of three Shining Star students. He said the school board might see an incentive to keep the charter school open. As Natale put it: “What school’s ready to accept 200 kids in the course of a semester?”

Hatcher said the district would start working in advance to find room in its schools for current Shining Star students. Many, like Sivik’s daughter, carpool from neighboring counties or could return to homeschooling if the charter school closes. But there would still be a large number for the district to absorb in the middle of a school year.

Natale, who served as president of Central Georgia Technical College before returning to Lake City this year, said the students may be better off in the long run if Buzzella’s original vision for an arts-focused charter could be preserved in a rechristened school with “stronger academic standing.”

The rescue plan would require Buzzella to step down as principal, though he said the new school might hire him as a consultant to sustain its music program, and ensure the school’s original vision is preserved.

“I’m willing to keep the school alive,” Buzzella said. “If this continues, I can retire with a smile on my face.”

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