This charter school answered prayers

Ron Matus

Once struggling in his neighborhood school, Tay’Shaun, pictured with his sister, Shanyla, is now on grade level and poised to soar academically.

TAMPA, Fla. — When Tay’Shaun Holley stumbled at his neighborhood school, his mom, Crystal Fountain, enrolled him in another district school 20 miles away. But that didn’t lead to solid footing either, and the complications of a single mom juggling three jobs, four kids and grueling commutes began to take its toll. Fountain prayed for help.

Then, a friend called. A neat, new school was opening near Fountain’s home. A charter school.

Fountain researched Collaboratory Preparatory Academy, filled out an application, scheduled a visit. Even before meeting the principal and teachers, she had a feeling: This was the one.

“Honestly, I cried tears of joy,” she said.

Seven months into Tay’Shaun’s first year, the joy continues. The 9-year-old who showed up weary and subdued – and sometimes became frustrated and angry – is now a sunny, outgoing third-grader who’s catching fire academically.

“He’s more engaged. He’s willing to learn,” Fountain said. “I’m very confident my son is going to be successful because of this school.”

More than 280,000 students attend charter schools in Florida, nearly triple the number from a decade ago. There’s probably 280,000 reasons why their parents chose charter schools. But many of them have stories like Fountain and her son.

Tay’Shaun is a model of spunky: beaming smile, carefree dreads. He described the difference between his neighborhood school and his new school this way: “One’s fun. One’s boring.” At the former, “You just sit there. They just give you the answer.”

Fountain had other concerns. In her view, basic communication – between teacher and parent, between teacher and student – was lacking. No remedy emerged for Tay’Shaun’s ADHD. The school as a whole struggled, too, with only a quarter of its students reading at grade level.

Fountain used a district choice program to enroll Tay’Shaun in another school. It was better. Tay’Shaun did better. But not better enough. Meanwhile, the juggling hurt.

Fountain has another son, 14, a daughter, 7, and cares for a 14-year-old niece. Her main business, a residential cleaning service, requires travel throughout Tampa Bay. Fountain had to say no to potential clients because of conflicts with the school schedule. That meant less income to give her kids the other things they need.

“You can’t imagine how stressful it was,” she said.

Then the clouds parted.

Collaboratory Preparatory Academy – CP for short – opened last fall on the fringe of industrial east Tampa. It sits in a trim, yellow building on the same 170-acre oasis that’s home to a bustling parish center and a new Catholic high school. (CP is unaffiliated.) The modest neighborhoods that unfurl nearby are hemmed in by Interstate 4, dotted with union halls – and burdened by some of the highest concentrations of poverty in the city.

CP is K-3 for now, with plans to expand a grade a year until it becomes K-8. Ninety-four percent of its 66 students qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch. Eighty-five percent are African-American.

That’s not by accident, said principal Heather Jenkins.

CP’s founder, businessman Trey Traviesa, is a former state lawmaker who focused on education policy. His goal, Jenkins said, is to ensure CP students have everything affluent students have – and can likewise live out their dreams. To that end, Traviesa raises private money to supplement the charter school’s state funding. CP has the latest technology. Neither teachers nor students pay for supplies. Before- and after-school care is free.

Jenkins hails from Michigan, where her gigs ranged from the toniest schools in the ‘burbs to the toughest in the inner city. She once had 45 students in a classroom with 32 desks and no heat, and a kiddie pool in the hallway to catch leaks. Jenkins was considering offers from two prep schools when she sat down with Traviesa. “He said, ‘You’ll do a good job there. But they don’t need you,’ “ Jenkins said. “ ‘This school needs you.’ “

Jenkins took the job and enrolled her daughter.

“I’m all in,” she said. “If this school fails, my kid fails.”

Fountain is as unflappable as Jenkins, with an even keel that borders on steely. She said she never considered what might happen if Tay’Shaun continued to struggle: “Failure wasn’t an option.”

The charter school works for her son, she said, because of smaller classes, more 1-on-1 attention, and constant communication.

The get-r-done mindset works, too. The school district approved CP’s application in May 2017; Jenkins began work in June. Everybody said starting a charter school from scratch in two months was impossible. Jenkins said, “Hold my beer.”

Ditto when Fountain’s car got totaled. Jenkins stepped in for weeks to give Tay’Shaun and his sister Shanyla (a second grader at CP) a ride. At week’s end, she’d take them to McDonald’s for what became a tradition: McFlurry Friday.

The classical music wafting through CP’s lobby belies how hard this is. One student’s dad was sentenced to prison for 15 years. Another committed suicide three weeks into the school year. CP keeps cots for students who don’t get enough sleep, and it’s not uncommon for CP teachers to wash their students’ uniforms.

Jenkins told teachers when she interviewed them: “You’re going to give, and give, and give some more. … You have to know: we will not give up on anybody.”

It’s hard to imagine, meeting Tay’Shaun, that he had issues, too.

Jenkins said in the beginning, he would sometimes act out – by stomping out of class, by sitting on the floor and refusing to get up. Jenkins said she and her staff worked to refocus him, remind him of his successes, restore his confidence. Slowly but surely, all the other ingredients in CP’s special sauce – there’s so many, Jenkins jokes it’s a mole – worked its magic.

Now, Tay’Shaun interacts with his teachers. He raises his hand to answer questions. Science is his favorite. “We do hands-on projects,” he said. “You get to mix chemicals. You get to make slime.” Even though he arrived more than a grade level behind in reading and math, he’s now solidly on grade level, with all trend lines ramping up.

Fountain credits CP. Jenkins credits Tay’Shaun and his mom.

It’s their determination, she said, that will make CP a success.

“We’re a better school because Tay’Shaun goes here,” she said. “Not the other way around.”

Full disclosure: The vice president of the CP charter school governing board is Suzanne Legg, senior administrator of Dayspring Academy charter school in Pasco County. She’s married to former state Sen. John Legg, a member of the governing board for Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that hosts this blog.

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