Somerset Academy is drawing the ire of both parents and neighbors in Coral Gables and Kendall as it expands its charter school empire.
Angry parents crowded into a cafeteria recently to hear that their kindergartners likely will be bused to a new school in Kendall after Somerset lost its Coral Gables lease at Granada Presbyterian Church.
Meanwhile, about 40 neighbors of the proposed school met Sunday, outraged by Somerset’s plans to replace a small neighborhood school that has been run by the same family for six decades and attended by fewer than 300 students.
Somerset wants to build a new campus on the site of the old Pinewood Acres, 9500 SW 97th Ave. in Kendall, to serve 2,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
“We’re not against education, but what we are against is the numbers they’re trying to introduce into the area and the huge buildings,” said Jose J. Suarez, who chose the secluded neighborhood 14 years ago for his modern glass and concrete house.
The outrage among both groups highlights the tricky waters Somerset has tried to navigate in opening its charter schools in residential neighborhoods. Since it was founded 15 years ago, Somerset, a nonprofit managed by its for-profit partner, Academica, has grown into one of the state’s largest charter school companies, with 42 schools around Florida, in Texas, Nevada and online.
This fall, Somerset took over kindergarten classes at Granada, telling parents that their students would be eligible to attend first grade at its campus at Christ Journey Church.
After a hard-fought battle with neighbors, Somerset opened a school at the church, but the enrollment was capped at 260 – down from the 700 Somerset had proposed. To minimize traffic, Somerset also agreed to give preference to students who live within a mile of the church, and only admit outside students if space allowed.
The fight shaping up over Kendall’s historic Pinewood Acres School nearly mirrors that of Coral Gables: an affluent community with A-rated schools where neighbors cherish their quiet streets and the area’s towering live oaks.
Over the last six decades, the Pinewood Acres School changed little. Two University of Miami education grads fashioned it out of a 20-acre pig farm. The founders lived in the building where they taught, and as the school grew, they built homes for teachers and their families.
But a tough economy in recent years has been hard on the school, said Judy Lones, daughter-in-law of its founders.
“The enrollment had dropped and it was going to take a lot of money to invest in it to wait out the storm.”
So last year, the family negotiated a five-year lease with Somerset with an option to buy. And in December, the family and Somerset submitted plans to the county that would replace the ranch-style buildings scattered around the eight-acre campus, making it look more like a camp than a school, with new two-story buildings that echo the style of other Somerset campuses.
Neighbors say the campus is too big for the area, where one-acre estate homes with tennis courts in their backyards abut smaller single-family and zero-lot-line homes serviced by just one two-lane thoroughfare, 97th Avenue.
Somerset intends to initially open the new school, Somerset Bay at Pinewood Acres, as a K-8, with only 290 students — not the 2,000 that it eventually hopes to enroll, said Andreina Figueroa, the school’s board chair.
“It is our goal to be good neighbors,’’ she wrote in an email.
Somerset already is advertising the new school on a website and soliciting applications. However, the Miami-Dade School District said it has not yet received an official request from Somerset to open a school at the site.