Military-style charter schools sprouting across Florida

From Acclaim Academy's facebook page: Students at the Duval school participating in a cadet promotion ceremony.
From Acclaim Academy’s facebook page: Students at the Duval school participating in a cadet promotion ceremony.

Like they are in other states, military-style charter schools are gaining a foothold in Florida.

There are new ones in Broward, Sarasota, Osceola and Duval counties – and more on the way. With a focus on rigor, structure, responsibility and respect, supporters say such schools experience fewer behavioral problems and better academic success.

Acclaim Academy, a fairly new charter schools outfit that embraces that formula, opened its first school in 2012 in Kissimmee, followed by another in August in Jacksonville. Local school boards, which authorize charter schools in Florida, recently approved three more academies to open next fall with one each in Duval, Orange and Palm Beach counties.

The schools feature high-tech equipment, with SMART boards for every teacher and take-home laptops for every student. But organizers defer to an old-school philosophy of discipline and rules, looking to the Army’s JROTC program as a format to promote structure, character and confidence.

Students are known as cadets. They wear Army fatigues. They participate in drills. It’s an experience that may lead some participants to the armed forces, but that’s not the academy’s mission.

“We’re not creating little soldiers,’’ said Bill Orris, Acclaim Academy’s director of education. Instead, the school is working to change the learning habits of 600 of the state’s most struggling students, he said.

More than 90 percent of them qualify for free or reduced lunches. Most on the Kissimmee campus had never passed the FCAT before enrolling, Orris said. That may have attributed to the academy’s first state grade last year, an F. “I’m not proud of that,’’ he said.

But he predicts that school and its Jacksonville counterpart will earn C’s this year. The academy was so popular among parents in the latter city, home to a large population of military families, that more than 900 applied for 300 seats, Orris said.

The schools in Orange and Palm Beach will serve grades 6-12, starting with 300 students and adding more each year until they reach 700, he said. Academy organizers also applied for charter schools in Lee, Pinellas, Hillsborough and Volusia counties. But Orris said they withdrew those applications after initial discussions with the districts indicated the applications would be denied.

“Districts have different requirements,’’ he said. “Orange County gave us a charter. Hillsborough wouldn’t. They just wanted us to be stronger. We agreed. Let’s re-do the application and do it right.’’

Orris, who said he has a military background, has run private schools and other charter schools. Among them: Tampa Bay Academy, a school for special-needs students that the Hillsborough County School Board closed in 2011 after the school’s management company abandoned it.

Texas-based Youth and Family Centered Services also ran a residential treatment center and group homes next to the Tampa Bay Academy, but the programs were not connected. A state inquiry into reports of violence and runaways at the treatment center resulted in its shutdown and the management company pulling out of the school.