Tuesday night, city council members in the beautiful Central Florida town of Clermont had to decide whether to put children’s needs ahead of adults’ needs. We were told beforehand it wasn’t looking good.
For a few months, dozens of parents had attended information nights, sponsored by Florida Parent Network and run by Keith Jacobs, our manager of charter school initiatives. During these sessions, parents discussed their need for more educational options in fast-growing Lake County.
They talked about overcrowded classrooms, portables that smelled of mold and mildew, lunches scheduled at 10 a.m. because the sheer number of students required staggered, and far too early, breaks.
Parents told us about the lack of one-on-one attention their children were receiving and the low grades and behavior problems that were reported as a result.
Something had to be done.
Partly in response to overcrowding concerns, the Lake County School Board approved a new charter school, Seven Lakes Preparatory Academy, and its proposed location in Clermont. Plans were drawn up and put into place. The community was made aware. It looked like a go. All it needed was a yes vote from the Clermont City Council.
At some point, though, residents started to complain about the location. They didn’t want to sit in slow traffic or fight carpool lines. They were worried about disruptions to their neighborhood.
These are all valid concerns. Adult concerns.
Thankfully, charter schools can be flexible in ways that district-run schools cannot. They determine their own start and end times. Charter operators can listen to their neighbors and create pick-up schedules that ensure disruption is kept to a minimum. By law, charter schools cannot enroll more than the numbers for which they were built.
Neighborhood schools that work for kids don’t just result in happy students. Oftentimes crime goes down and property values go up. Everyone wins.
Most importantly, children in Clermont must be able to learn in a safe and healthy environment. We cannot jeopardize their well-being because adults would rather drive faster. Our children should not be forced to eat lunch in the morning and then, as hunger creeps up on them a few hours later, be expected to process arithmetic and language arts.
This is not acceptable.
Children must come first.
In the days leading up to the meeting, we were told the city council was voting no. Keith Jacobs reached out to our advocates, encouraging them to email and call their council members.
All over Florida, parents are moving mountains. They have defeated lawsuits, bad legislation and a status quo that insists only parents with means have options.
We hoped Clermont parents would do the same.
But at the beginning of the meeting, we were discouraged.
During the city’s presentation, a staff member said they only received six emails in support of this school and over a hundred against. We knew this was incorrect. We also knew hundreds of Lake County parents told us they wanted more options for their kids. Only 15 advocates could make it out on a school night for this meeting, but they represented so many more.
Would they be heard?
I approached the microphone with a stack of 111 emails from parents, residents of Clermont, who asked the council to approve the charter’s location.
We all wish planners would take into consideration both roads and schools when approving new developments and communities. However, once the children arrive, we have no choice. It’s required that we, the adults in the room, do something about it.
Our children deserve nothing less.
This is the message that resonated with city council members. On top of hundreds of calls and emails, they heard from concerned advocates in person. Parents, teachers and school leaders stood and spoke about what their kids need.
Thanks to those advocates, parents in Lake County have more options now than they did before.
The council approved the location for the new charter school. Council members put children’s needs ahead of adults’ needs. And we are all the better for it.
Catherine Durkin Robinson is a former district school teacher and columnist who now runs the Florida Parent Network, an advocacy group that protects and defends a parent’s right to choose the best school for their kids.