The population was booming on the Gold Coast in the 1990s, surging by 20 percent in Broward and Miami-Dade alone, just as Florida passed a new law opening the door to charter schools.
Maggie Fresen Zulueta, who helped create one of the state’s first charter schools, remembers the pressures well. “The schools were severely overcrowded,” she said. “You had situations at the nearby public schools with multiple trailers in their fields.”
Zulueta and her husband opened Somerset Academy in Miramar with a dual purpose – to give parents a different learning option for their students and to help the school district cope with overcrowding. And she remembers it as a partnership with the Miami-Dade School Board.
“In Broward and Miami-Dade counties, they knew they had this big challenge with providing adequate facilities for the huge population growth,” said Zulueta. “They were appreciative of the help to alleviate the problems. They did not see us as a big threat.”
Two decades later, two counties in Central Florida – Lake and Osceola – are facing similar growing pains and they are turning to the same playbook. They are adding charter schools as a piece of the overall growth strategy.
To be sure, the political climate for charter schools is more difficult this time around. With the number of charter school applications approved dropping in the state, there are more tensions between boards and charter officials, particularly when it comes to competition.
“It is a little bit harder at the onset,” said Zulueta, co-founder of Academica. “You may have a harder time getting your charter approved. But we found once the school opens, we have a great relationship with the district.”
Future growth projections for Lake, a sprawling district just outside Orlando, cause angst for school officials. School growth officials estimate 17 out of 42 schools will be over capacity by 2022.
The Lake County School Board approved the opening of a new charter school, Pinecrest Lakes Academy, in 2016. That school is now the top school in the county, earning an “A.” Since then, the board has approved two more Pinecrest schools, which are expected to open in 2019 and 2020.
The board also approved another charter school, Seven Lakes Preparatory Academy, in Clermont.
Lake County School Board member Bill Mathias said there is a place to partner with quality charter schools, and he thinks charter schools, with less red tape, can be built quicker than traditional public schools.
But Mathias also doesn’t want his county to rely on charters in the future.
“I think with the gains overall in our district, charters will be looking at other districts that aren’t doing the things we are doing,” he said.
From her side of things, Pinecrest principal Christina Alcalde views the relationship between her charter school and the district as a productive and cooperative one.
In neighboring Osceola County, overcrowding has spawned 242 portable classrooms to date. The Osceola County School Board approved 12 new charter schools in the last few years to, in part, help with the overcrowding.
“We are a charter friendly district,” said Dana Schafer, Osceola school spokesperson. “We believe they provide choice to our parents and they do help us in providing the needed student stations.”
Fernando Barroso, director of central Florida operations for Academica, said he has opened schools recently in Osceola and Lake counties.
“Growth in central Florida has been explosive,” said Barroso. “A lot of the districts do not have the finances to build the student stations to provide for that growth. Charter schools are a small piece of a more holistic solution to those capacity needs.”
He said building a collaborative relationship with districts is key. But he said it does not always happen.
“It takes a village,” he said. “We all need to work together.”
On the Gold Coast, Miami-Dade has become the state’s leader in charter schools. Its partnership has resulted in the approval and creation of 65 charter schools, schools that now serve more than 65,000 students.
One of those schools, Somerset Academy in Miramar, is emblematic of that progress. The school started with humble beginnings: 50 students in grades K-5 in two trailers. Now, the school serves close to 1,200 students. More notably, Somerset was recognized this week as a National Blue Ribbon school by the U.S. Department of Education.
Frank Bolanos served as a Miami-Dade School Board member from 2001 to 2006. He views parental choice as having a permanent place in the public-school system. While there may be tensions between charters and boards now, Bolanos, who co-founded Avant Garde Academy schools, said part of the original intent of charter schools is to create a more competitive spirit with traditional public schools.
“Competition has been healthy for the traditional and public schools,” he said.