The notion began as a summer job training program back in 1983. By the following year, it was a fulltime magnet, run out of a shop classroom at Miami Central High School, designed to expose kids from the countys poorest, riot-torn neighborhoods to career possibilities offered by waters they never saw. To these impoverished students, Community Relations Board Chairman Bob Simms told The Herald, Biscayne Bay was more mirage than reality.
The Inner-City Marine Project pulled students from Central, Northwestern, Edison and Jackson high schools, along with kids from Douglas MacArthur-North, described as a school for disruptive teenagers. Their first project was to overhaul a dilapidated 27-foot cabin cruiser.
Seventy-five students were enrolled. No one from Miami-Dade Countys finer ZIP codes was fighting to get their children into one of those slots at Central High.
Twenty eight years later and, oh my, how things have changed.
On Wednesday, parents and students concerned maybe aghast over proposed changes to the programs modern incarnation filled the school board meeting room in exasperated disunion. One side wore red. The other white. They pleaded and denounced and cajoled and debated for more than four hours in a classic confrontation: us against the elites.
Except, in the dust-up over who deserves admission to MAST Academy, combatants on either side regarded themselves as the us. Those damn people on the other side of the argument; they were the elitists.
Red shirts opposed changes to admission criteria that would allow kids from Key Biscayne to crash the academically wonderful Maritime and Science Technology Academy on Virginia Key, as the old Inner-City Marine Project was rechristened after it moved out to Virginia Key in 1989, at the edge of that Biscayne mirage.
White shirts, residents of the island village, population 12,344, have long wanted their own high school. Key Biscayne high school students are now assigned to Coral Gables High School, not exactly a ghetto school in the asphalt jungle, but a long haul 10 miles on the other side of the Rickenbacker Causeway.
MAST parents and students and alumni have good reason to defend the status quo. The MAST student body, with only 550 or so students, has been consistently ranked as the top academic achievers among public schools in the county and the state, with a dazzling success record for sending grads (nearly everyone graduates) on to four-year colleges.
Kids must have a 2.5 grade point average to qualify for admission to MAST. Not such a daunting threshold. (Not like, say, New York Citys famed Stuyvesant High School, which uses a brutal entrance exam to determine admissions). Last year about 1,000 qualified kids applied for 160 slots at MAST. A lottery decides the winners. The status red shirts defended with such fervor Wednesday was rooted in pure, random luck. The vagaries of chance made this squabble all the more peculiar.
Despite the blind lottery, the schools demographics hardly reflect the overall districts ethnic breakdown, with non-Hispanic whites, just a little over eight percent of the countys overall public school population, managing to snare 25 percent of those coveted seats at MAST. Just 10 percent of the MAST enrollees are black, the kids who never see the bay, though they represent 25 percent of the districts overall student population.
The deal Superintendent Alberto Carvalho cobbled together with Key Biscayne would add 1,100 more students to a larger school, with the expansion financed by the city. His plan would up the number of seats available to the county-wide student population by 25 percent, and coax more minority students to enter the admission lottery. But to the utter chagrin of the red shirts, Key Biscayne high schoolers would get first preference to a majority of the new seats provided they meet the 2.5 grade point average admission requirement (and, like other MAST students, maintain a 3.0 GPA once theyre admitted).
In return, the Village of Key Biscayne has agreed to pay the district $18 million. (Half the money would finance renovations on the islands K-8 school.) That set red shirts to railing that the wealthy village residents (with a medium annual household income of nearly $100,000) were buying or bribing their way into the prestigious MAST community.
Of course, both sides were fighting for the same thing their childrens future. Board Member Lawrence Feldman, putting it rather more nicely than I might have, said via e-mail Friday that the squabble came out of their mutual quest for the best education for kids regardless of their background or zip code. But it was the kind of quest that made for a long and ferocious school board meeting on a Wednesday afternoon.
But while red shirts and white shirts went at one another, the real culprits were state legislators who, as Board Member Raquel Regalado said Friday, have created a $1.7 billion shortfall, a capital crunch, in construction and maintenance funds. Legislators diverted the Public Education Capital Outlay funds, derived from taxes on taxes on landline telephones, cable and electricity, originally earmarked for public school districts construction and maintenance needs, to charter schools. What capital funds the Miami-Dade district has must go to pay off bond obligations. Theres nothing left. No money for teachers raises for the fourth year running. Nothing to build new schools or maintain old ones. Regalado said the district, desperate to find new funding streams, has fashioned compacts with Cutler Bay, Sunny Isles, Doral, Miami and, now, this contentious deal with Key Biscayne.
Meanwhile, the charter school operators (with all the clout in Tallahassee) are circling like sharks, sensing lucrative new business opportunities in underfunded public school districts. Without a high school, wealthy Key Biscayne becomes easy prey for the charter industry. The deal between the Village and the school district, if nothing else, would keep the charters from poaching another chunk of the districts high achieving students. And stave off the Tallahassee-driven strategy to reduce traditional public schools to a collection of repositories for the poor, underachieving, difficult, disabled and minority students kids who never see the bay.
Before the financial crisis, before Tallahassee began this ever-more-blatant strategy to sabotage traditional public schools, maybe the red shirts would have prevailed. Maybe, if MAST existed in a vacuum, they should have prevailed. But in 2012, if Key Biscayne comes up with $18 million, the school district can hardly say no. The Village needs a high school and is willing to pay for it and for the facilities and needs of an over-crowded K8, Regalado said, by e-mail Friday. The parents at MAST want to retain the status quo, and fail to recognize the plight of public education in Florida.
To the kids who set to work on that leaky old cabin cruiser at Miami Central 28 years ago, both sides in the culture clash out on Virginia Key would look pretty damn elite: red shirts and white shirts, so caught up in their tempestuous discord no one noticed that the old marine job training program had gone adrift in a sea of irony.