It took only one meeting to convince Zanquesha Morgan to enroll her two boys into University Preparatory Academy, a new K-8 charter school in south St. Petersburg, Fla. It didn’t matter that she had never heard of the school, or its founder, or its approach to academics.
Like a lot of parents in this hardscrabble community along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street, Morgan was desperate. Four district schools in the predominantly black area earned F grades this year. Three more would have had it not been for a last-minute rule change by the state.
“I just knew I wanted another option,” Morgan said. “I came to the orientation and I was like, ‘Finally, someone has answered our prayers.’ ’’
What’s happening in this city of 280,000 on the west coast of Florida, better known for its sunshine, retirees and the Tampa Bay Rays baseball team, echoes what’s happening across the nation. Charter schools continue to grow enrollment by leaps and bounds because parents are lining up in droves, sometimes literally. In the case of University Prep, more than 800 applied, but because of capacity, only 530 got in.
According to a recent estimate from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 520,000 individual students were on charter school waiting lists last year – on top of the 2.3 million enrolled. As the situation in Florida shows, many parents are willing to roll the dice on an untested charter school because they’re so frustrated with existing options.
“I figured it’s got to be better than the public school,” said Timothy Gill, who brought his son and daughter to UPA after years at a nearby, F-rated district school. “Here, there’s less bullying and more education.”
The school’s founder and principal is Cheri Shannon, the former president and chief executive officer of the Florida Charter School Alliance. She modeled University Prep after a charter she headed in Kansas City, Mo., that aimed to prepare low-income minority students for college.
“It’s something that’s never been here before,’’ said Enoris Sly, a city worker who moved his 7-year-old daughter, Anoriay, from a private Christian school to UPA.
He came for the promise of rigorous curriculum, highly-skilled teachers and all the extras – Spanish, music, art, P.E. And because he could get all of that for free. Charter schools are public schools that operate independently from districts.
South St. Petersburg has a particularly tangled history when it comes to schools, race and student achievement. A desegregation case against the district dragged on for decades. Another long-running lawsuit accused the district of failing to educate black students.
A settlement reached in the latter case in 2010 required the district to try to create 500 seats for black students in charter schools. That paved the way for UPA, which paid the district $1.1 million for an aging school shuttered four years ago.
Supporters of the school hope it can help turn around some of the worst test scores in Florida. Black students in Pinellas County, where St. Pete is the biggest city and home to the bulk of the district’s black students, fare worse in reading and math than black students in any of Florida’s other large school districts. A much-disputed 2010 report by the Schott Center for Public Education also found that among urban districts across the country, Pinellas had the worst graduation rate for black males.
Those rates are rising, but significant achievement gaps persist. And rough behavior at some schools remains a concern for parents like Gill.
At University Prep, his daughter Abiathar, a fifth-grader, relishes learning Spanish. Her brother, Tristan, a fourth-grader, likes the single-gendered classes. It’s only been a few weeks, but both kids said they feel safer.
“They’ve got cameras and security guards,’’ Gill said.
There’s no doubt the school will be closely watched, too – and not just by parents.
Its opening coincides with the closing of another charter school, only a few miles away, that served mostly minority students and earned multiple F grades. Given the schools it’s drawing from, UPA is likely to have some of the most challenging demographics in the district.
Earlier this month, district officials said they were investigating complaints that University Prep was booting kids with behavior problems. Shannon denied “cherry picking” students, but the claim drew a banner headline in the local newspaper. Less than a week later, the district determined there was no wrongdoing. Spokeswoman Melanie Marquez Parra said the district received “about three calls” from community members alleging students were being asked to leave. District officials interviewed 11 of 23 parents who withdrew from the school. Some said they left because of bullying. Others decided to return to their old schools. None said they were asked to leave.
It remains to be seen whether the school will prove successful. But the parents who spoke to redefinED said that for their children and grandchildren, UPA offered hope.
Every student goes in with an understanding that they are going to college. Along with academics, school organizers say, they learn leadership skills and are held accountable for their progress and behavior.
Students have access to school buses, but many children rely on their families for transportation. Shannon makes parents and other adults come inside to retrieve kids. The policy is for safety reasons, she said, but it also helps the newcomer put names to faces.
Carol Myles said her granddaughter, a second-grader, likes the personal touch. At her old school, kids picked on her, said Myles, a district crossing guard. But so far, that’s not the case at UPA.
“She seems to love it here,’’ said Myles, who recognized many of her neighbors at the school. “People here were looking for a better plan.’’