Unique Orlando private school to close, but methods may live on

Travis Pillow

A small, one-of-a-kind private school, which launched two years ago in an Orlando, Fla. community center and quickly won acclaim for its efforts to educate low-income students, is closing. But the educators who launched it say their efforts aren’t ending.

In a video posted this afternoon on Facebook, Nathan Smith, one of the school’s co-founders, announced publicly what he said parents at the school had known for about a month: “The school component of The Human Experience was not going to be sustainable in our third year.”

Smith founded the middle school along with Danita Jones in the summer of 2014 to create a safe place for students they had taught together at a nearby charter school. They served as tag-teaming instructors and administrators, with help from parents, community supporters and Smith’s wife. Jones was hired away last school year to help lead a high-profile charter school in Harlem.

Smith said he plans to accept a STEM position at Legends Academy, a charter school focused on low-income students in the Washington Shores neighborhood just a short distance from Frontline Outreach Center, which housed The Human Experience.

The nonprofit that oversaw the private school will continue to exist, providing a mentoring program for its former students, he said. It will also promote the school’s innovative curriculum, which spawned rap songs enumerating academic standards and explaining literary devices. Songs, dances and videos Smith, Jones and their students produced became local Internet sensations and helped draw the attention of the Orlando Sentinel and ABC’s World News Tonight.

“I can honestly say that we have done things as a school that no other school in the country does,” Smith said in the video. “I’m not talking educational songs or anything like that, because everybody’s experimenting with that. But the quality of the songs that we were able to produce creatively, and the quality of the relationships that we were able to build through creative pursuits, are unmatched.”

Smith said he planned to implement some of the same methods at his new school, and spread them to other Central Florida schools.

“Believe it or not, most of the content that we’ve created at The Human Experience, you haven’t seen. We haven’t released it yet, and we’re really excited to share that in the future through whatever means is best,” he said in his video.

Sylvia Porchia, a parent who helped with administrative tasks like signing students up for tax credit scholarships* during the past school year, said the school had about 34 students, with another 15 slated to join next school year. She said some of the students are now on waiting lists for sought-after charter and private schools in their area, but many will attend their zoned public schools.

She said carrying the full teaching load last year, while also managing the school and its extended hours, had taken a toll on Smith.

“It just came down to: Can I do this again next year? To him, the answer was, no, he couldn’t do it to the standards that he wanted,” she said.

Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the tax credit scholarship program in Florida.

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