Charter company taking over struggling Florida middle school named state School of Hope operator

When the doors of the former Warrington Middle School open in August, students will enter a new School of Hope.

Members of the State Board of Education unanimously approved Renaissance Charter School’s application to be a School of Hope operator in Escambia County, the westernmost county of the Florida Panhandle. Renaissance, a non-profit organization, is managed by Charter Schools USA, a for-profit company based in Fort Lauderdale that serves 100 charter schools across the United States.

The approval came a week after the Escambia County School Board approved a contract with Charter Schools USA and Renaissance to take over operations at Warrington Middle School, which has struggled academically for more than a decade and has not received a state grade higher than a D during that time.

The designation, allowed by a law passed in 2017, includes several conditions that allow charter operators to be named Schools of Hope. Those include charter schools that are approved to take over struggling district schools that are in the state turnaround process. It also gives the charter operators access to additional state funding.

The most recent designation in this category was granted to Somerset Academy, Inc., which took over the Jefferson County School District in 2017 after the district’s long string of failing state grades. After its five-year contract ended, Somerset turned the schools back over to district officials.

“This is not just a name; it’s just not a designation with bragging rights,” said Adam Emerson executive director of the Florida department of Education’s Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice. “It also does come with some significant resources, startup resources, that can get help get them off the ground for a successful start this fall because the first day of school is only a few months away.”

Emerson said the state education department would take an active role in helping Renaissance Charter School as it reopens the former Warrington Middle campus and will provide updates at each monthly state Board of Education meeting.

“This has been the bane of our existence for quite some time,” board member Monesia Brown said. She pointed out that the district’s messaging during the contract negotiation process had been primarily negative and asked that future communications from the state reassure parents that “this is an investment to make sure their children get the quality of education they deserve.”

The approval of the contract between the Escambia County School District and Charter Schools USA marked the end of two months of tense negotiations over the school’s future enrollment policies, fees and long-term lease issues.

District leaders also faced the wrath of state officials and board members who criticized them for failing to make progress in reaching an agreement with the charter organization.

In a surprise move shortly after voting to approve the contract, the Escambia County School Board fired the superintendent.

Emerson said now that the contract has been signed, the community is coming together, and that a recent meeting “struck a collaborative tone to move forward.”

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BY Lisa Buie

Lisa Buie is senior reporter for NextSteps. The daughter of a public school superintendent, she spent more than a dozen years as a reporter and bureau chief at the Tampa Bay Times before joining Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa, where she served for nearly five years as marketing and communications manager. She lives with her husband and their teenage son, who has benefited from education choice.