TAMPA – To challenge students in his first-period social studies class, professional animator-turned-educator Nick Gallo-Lopez asked them to imagine being trapped in a maze of mirrors inhabited by a people-eating chandelier.
It wasn’t your typical social studies lesson. But then, Focus Academy isn’t your typical school, and these weren’t your typical students.
One student in particular stood out.
Daniel Miguenes, lean and long-limbed with dark, watchful eyes, stepped back as his classmates huddled. He remained silent as they chose partners and plotted their escape from the maze, as if separated from them by an invisible curtain.
Gallo-Lopez continued the lesson, occasionally attempting to lure Daniel in. But he didn’t push. Experience has taught him that forcing a student like Daniel to engage is like trying to convince a vegetarian to eat prime rib.
The last thing he wanted to do was unravel the bond he and his colleagues have forged with Daniel in the three years he’s been with them.
“It’s taken time to get on Daniel’s wavelength, to gain his trust,” Gallo-Lopez said. “Maintaining that connection is the key to his continued success, not just academically, but socially as well. That’s our goal here.”
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Parents turn to charter schools for all kinds of reasons, and it’s not always because they want something different. Witness what’s happening right now in Broward County, Fla.
As highlighted by this fascinating story from the Miami Herald, a group of parents in Broward, the nation’s sixth-biggest school district, are pushing for a charter school conversion as a way to save their district-run school, which they fear will be closed in the coming years.
In Broward, the district last year announced the closure of Wingate Oaks and another special-needs school — in the name of efficiency. The district had six specialized learning centers and argued that consolidating them into four would allow students to get expanded services and, in the end, a better education.
One center, Sunset school, was indeed shut down. But the district postponed closing Wingate Oaks after parents made impassioned arguments against the relocations, which in some cases would force medically fragile children to endure bus rides of more than an hour to get to school. Some students are in wheelchairs; others need help going to the bathroom. Parent David Martinez’s daughter gets her nourishment through a feeding tube.
“When you’re a parent of a child with a disability, it takes a while to earn trust,” Martinez said. The staff at Wingate had done that, he said, and then all of the sudden the district pulled the rug out.
Postponing the closure did not placate the Wingate parents because Broward set the condition that no additional students would be allowed to enroll there. That set the stage for what parents call the school’s “slow death,” with a steady decline in resources and enrollment.
So the parents brainstormed and came up with the charter school proposal.
The article notes that charter school conversions are still rare. They’ve actually become increasingly rare as charter schools have proliferated around the state.
Nearly every teacher and parent at a popular magnet school in Bradenton, Fla., has voted in favor of turning the district school into a charter school.
Rowlett Magnet Elementary Principal Brian Flynn announced the final tally Monday evening during a public meeting at the Manatee County school, noting 94 percent of his instruction staff and 95 percent of parents turned in Yes ballots.
“So that’s pretty overwhelming support,” he said, but “we have more work to do.” That includes developing a financial plan, naming an independent school board and putting together a “solid” charter application that is due to the district by Aug. 1.
The move follows months of turmoil in the school district, where a $38 million budget shortfall has resulted in state intervention and a reorganization plan that has brought a districtwide spending freeze, program cuts and threats of layoffs. It got so bad recently at one local middle school, the principal sent home letters to parents asking for donations to make it through the final weeks of the school year.
Rowlett administrators, teachers and parents decided that rather than lose their special art and communications classes, and devoted teachers, they would attempt a charter conversion.
“It’s not the direction I thought we would be going in after 13 years,” said Flynn, a 34-year district employee who has led the school since it opened in 2000. “It’s not about wanting to leave the district. We wanted to be able to continue the type of programs that we have always offered.”
The district will have to review the application. If approved, Rowlett could open as a charter school – the first conversion charter in Manatee and the 21st such school in Florida – in the 2014-15 school year.
For parent Erin Novarro, who has a rising second-grader and fourth-grader at Rowlett and enrolled them in the school because of the special programs, going charter is the right decision. It’s the only way, she said, “to keep Rowlett Rowlett.”
Every one of the 61 teachers eligible to vote on the conversion cast a ballot, Flynn said. The final count was 57-4. Of the 645 families eligible to vote, 506 did so with 480 voting yes.
Editor’s note: School officials discovered four more ballots that were mailed in, changing the total number of votes for parents from 502 to 506 and the total yes votes from 477 to 480, said Assistant Principal Kim Penman. We updated our story to reflect the new numbers.
Kristopher Pappas, a sixth-grader at Orlando Science School, looks like a lot of 11-year-olds, like he could have a Kindle and a Razor and put a little brother in a headlock. But Kristopher says he wants to be a quantum mechanic, and with a blow dryer and ping pong ball, he proves he’s not an idle dreamer. He turns on the blow dryer and settles the ball atop the little rumble of air stream, where, instead of whooshing away, it shimmies and floats a few inches above the barrel. The trick is cool, but it’s Kristopher’s explanation that fries synapses. “You got to give Bernoulli credit,” he begins.
As a whole, Florida students don’t do well in science. The solid gains they’ve made over the past 15 years in reading and math haven’t been matched in biology, chemistry and physics. But schools of choice like the one in Orlando are giving hope to science diehards.
Orlando Science School is a charter school, tucked away in a nothing-fancy commercial park, next to a city bus maintenance shop. Founder and principal Yalcin Akin has a Ph.D in materials engineering and did research at Florida State University’s world-renowned magnet lab. His school opened in 2008 with 109 sixth- and seventh- graders. Now it has 730 kids in K-11 and serious buzz as the science school in Orange County, the 10th biggest school district in the nation. Only 26 schools in Florida can boast that 80 percent of their eighth graders passed the state science test last year (the test is given in fifth and eighth grades). At least two thirds were magnets or charters. Orlando Science School was one of them.
The kids are “constantly challenged, which is what you want,” said parent Kathi Martin. One of Martin’s daughters is in ninth grade; the other is in seventh. Mom wasn’t excited about the neighborhood school; the science magnets were too far away; the private schools didn’t feel like home. During a visit to Orlando Science School, she said, something clicked.
It’s “a school where it’s cool to be a nerd,” she said.
In 2006, the Orange County School Board denied the charter’s application. The state approved it on appeal.
Last year, 1,500 kids were on the waiting list. Last month, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer paid a visit.
“This is about word of mouth,” said Tamara Cox, the mother of eighth-grader Akylah Cox. “The parents recognize the value of what’s going on at OSS. That’s why there is such a need and such a calling for it.”
For every bad story about charter schools in Florida, several good ones go untold.