Florida charter school leader moves on to new venture

Cheri Shannon

The head of one of Florida’s two statewide charter school support groups is stepping down to lead a more targeted effort. Cheri Shannon, president and CEO of the Florida Charter School Alliance, is leaving at the end of the month to lead University Prep, a new charter network she says will focus exclusively on low-income students. To some extent, she’ll be coming full circle, having once run a charter school in Kansas City, Mo., that served students who were predominantly black and high poverty.

“This is my passion, my mission. … I felt called, for lack of a better word, to come back in and do that work,” Shannon told redefinED. “This is where I want to end my career, making a difference in the lives of kids who deserve a difference.”

Shannon joined the alliance in April 2011 as its founding CEO. A former associate superintendent in the Kansas City school district, she has years of experience in both traditional school districts and the charter sector.

Her new venture already has four charter school proposals in the pipeline, including one scheduled to go before the Pinellas County School Board on Tuesday. The school boards in Broward and Palm Beach counties have already signed off on the University Prep applications in their districts. The application in Hillsborough is scheduled to go before that district’s board next month, Shannon said.

The Pinellas proposal is for a K-8 school in St. Petersburg with a projected, first-year enrollment of 694 students. The plan is to open next fall. (To read more about the application, go to page 318 of the school board agenda packet.)

The proposal stands before an interesting legal backdrop – a 2010 settlement from a class-action lawsuit that accused the Pinellas district of failing to educate black students in violation of the state constitution. Under its terms, the Pinellas school board set an aspirational goal of having at least 500 spaces in charter schools available for black students.

The University Prep proposal is supported by a group called the Learning Village, which has strong ties to the plaintiffs’ representatives. Members include attorney Guy Burns, who represented the plaintiffs; Goliath Davis, a former St. Petersburg police chief; and former Democratic state Rep. Bill Heller. It also includes Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up For Students, the nonprofit that administers the state’s tax-credit scholarship program and co-hosts the redefinED blog.

(In the interest of full disclosure, Step Up board chair John Kirtley is a member of the Florida Charter School Alliance board.)

New Pinellas Superintendent Mike Grego has recommended the school board approve the University Prep application.

Jim Horne, who chairs the charter alliance board, said the board was comfortable and confident with Shannon’s leadership, so her departure is disappointing on a personal level. But “from a professional level, we recognize the opportunity for her,” he said. “Cheri, deep down, she’s an educator. At her roots, she misses the interaction with faculty and students and parents and families.”

Horne said there is no timeline yet on finding a replacement. Board members are discussing whether the alliance should refine its mission, including the possibility of adding what he called a “think tank aspect.”

“I don’t want charter schools to go the way of a lot of great reforms and sort of stagnate,” he said. “If you decide to do a think tank, that might change the role of a CEO and the kind of person you want.”

Horne said that debate should be hashed out by year’s end.

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at rmatus@stepupforstudents.org or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at facebook.com/redefinedonline.