New proposals for charter school collaboration in Central Florida

Three large school districts along Florida’s I-4 corridor are angling for grants that could help them draw nationally recognized charter school networks to low-income neighborhoods.

The Orange, Polk and Hillsborough County school districts applied this month for $2.5 million in funding from round two of the Florida Department of Education’s district-charter collaboration program.

The three districts are among the ten largest school systems in the Florida, and the top 30 in the country. Their proposals, published here for the first time, describe how they would use chartering to combat persistent academic struggles in high-poverty areas.

The potential collaborations break from the charged politics that often dominate the headlines. They represent an approach to charter schools that’s still new for many Florida school districts.

As Polk County schools officials write in their proposal:

The Polk Charter Compact will turn charter school management in Polk from a compliance and coping exercise to purposeful tool for improved student performance in high-need areas where students are not currently receiving adequate educational services.

The department earlier this year awarded grants to Miami-Dade, Duval, and Broward Counties, but Broward’s school board rejected the money, creating an opening for other districts to apply.

Three other districts — Palm Beach, Pinellas, and Pasco — were eligible to apply, but didn’t. Pinellas is the only district that was eligible to apply for a grant in both rounds, but showed no interest.

Around the country, education reformers trying to help more districts and charters work together. They’re also looking at the factors that can draw top-performing charter schools to low-income neighborhoods. With that in mind, the three latest collaboration proposals are worth a closer look.

Bridging the gap in Hillsborough

Hillsborough officials say they want to bring a new high-impact charter school to Tampa’s urban core, where middle school proficiency rates are roughly 40 percent lower than elsewhere in the district.

The district says it wants to share know-how with the charter organization, and help with teacher recruitment and facilities, in a collaboration that could “serve as a replicable model for other districts around the nation.”

The three districts applying for the second round of grants all say they intend to focus on middle schools, where achievement gaps have widened amid rising poverty.

Hillsborough officials write that their district needs to “design a proactive, more strategic process to bring high-impact [charter school organizations] to the district and enhance the capacity to support and monitor positive student outcomes in areas which demonstrate the most need.”

Potential collaborators backing the plan include Carpe Diem, a network of charters focused on personalized learning, and Lighthouse Academies, which opened its first Hillsborough charter school last year.

“With [Hillsborough’s] commitment to working together, we can bridge the gap that currently exists in our low-income schools,” Doug Bouma, Carpe Diem’s chief growth officer, wrote in a letter enclosed with the proposal.

A home for KIPP in Orlando?

Orange County Public Schools officials say they plan to “partner with a charter management organization with a track record of helping students develop the knowledge, skills, character, and habits necessary to succeed.”

Their proposal doesn’t specify which organization that will be, but it’s clear they’ve looked closely at one, traveling to Nashville to scope out schools run by the Knowledge Is Power Program, and visiting KIPP’s existing Florida schools.

In a letter, Tom Majdanics, the executive director of KIPP Jacksonville, notes the KIPP Foundation recently put expansion plans on hold, but “that pause has ended, and KIPP is actively approaching growth to new cities.”

“I would be very excited at the prospect of KIPP in Orlando,” he writes. “Having KIPP cities in close proximity to one another would make KIPP’s Florida presence stronger.”

Orange County officials say they’re identified a building to house the school run by their new collaborator, and the district would provide transportation to help low-income students get to the school.

Lowering barriers in Bartow

Polk County school officials say they contend with above-average poverty, below-average literacy and unique needs of migrant children, whose parents take seasonal jobs in Central Florida’s farming and tourism industries.

Polk is already home to a well-regarded municipal charter school network, and officials there envision growing new charters in batches.

They describe a collaboration that would yield four to eight new charter schools over the next decade, beginning in the county seat of Bartow — a city, their proposal notes, “where need is pronounced, the community has shown outstanding support for school choice, and geographic logistics make the program realistic and feasible.”

The effort — backed by a letter from the Green Dot charter school network — would also involve community groups like the United Way of Central Florida and the new Teach For America operation in Orlando. A steady supply of teachers, including TFA members, is often a big factor for high-performing charter organizations looking to come to new cities.

The district also plans to look at barriers that keep low-income parents from enrolling in charter schools.

“Opportunity for choice is a worthy goal in itself, but we cannot improve overall performance via choice unless families are proactive,” Polk’s proposal says. “We must do our part to generate interest among families otherwise reticent to take that step.”

What’s next?

A Department of Education spokeswoman said it’s not yet clear when the state will decide which of the three districts will win the next charter school collaboration grant.

In the meantime, Miami-Dade County Public Schools are looking to recruit a top charter operator to South Florida, Duval County’s collaboration with KIPP is already underway, and legislation aimed at aiding “high-impact” charter school networks that do well in low-income communities — whether national or Florida-grown — will be on the table when state lawmakers convene in January.

Despite all the headlines about conflict, districts and charters in different parts of the state are finding ways to work together, and at least one more formal collaboration could soon be in the works.

Read the proposals here: