Plans to replace a small neighborhood school in East Kendall with a massive charter school housing 2,000 students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade drew a crowd of outraged residents this week demanding the school be stopped.
Despite their objections, charter representatives told about 100 residents who filled a church sanctuary Tuesday that the campus will open in August.
The new Somerset Academy Bay at Pinewood Acres, 9500 SW 97th Ave., would become part of an expanding empire for the school’s for-profit management company, Academica. Somerset has asked the Miami-Dade school district to approve two five-year charters for the campus, including a K-5 with 750 students, and a middle school with another 750 students, a district spokesman said.
Somerset representatives said they have already received 875 applications, and believe the campus can eventually hold all 2,000 students.
“Realistically, that is the number we think the site can sustain,” architect Rolando Llanes said.
Plans for the charter first surfaced in February after a Somerset campus in Coral Gables lost its lease and parents were told their children would be bused to a new Kendall campus. A week later, Somerset presented preliminary plans to revamp the old Pinewood Acres school at a county zoning meeting packed with angry neighbors. In the meantime, parents from the Gables campus say they still have not been told where their children will attend school in the fall.
“We missed magnet programs that are basically comparable to the charter programs and apparently most of us will have no choice but a second lottery,” parent Anna Elena Brana complained in an email.
Hugo Arza, an attorney for Somerset, said Tuesday that the school decided to take over Pinewood after finding a demand in the area. Of the 875 applications, he said about 70 percent came from nearby zip codes.
Originally founded to focus on early childhood development, Pinewood has been owned and operated by the Lones family for the last 60 years. It grew to include middle school grades, but never enrolled more than 250 students. Or lost its camp-like charm. Declining enrollment for the last five years, Judy Lones said, finally prompted the family to sign a five-year lease-to-purchase deal with Somerset.
“This was the best solution at the time, to keep it going and growing and providing a service for the kids in the area. The small school is just a good match,” she said in February. “It gives our students and teachers and other children in our area an opportunity to continue to be here.”
But Somerset’s plans would increase enrollment nearly tenfold. And only three of 13 Pinewood teachers were hired. While she would not discuss specific hiring, Principal Saili Hernandez said in an email that Somerset has so far selected nine teachers “from qualified applicants based on numerous factors including the curriculum and grade levels.”
In February, county staff warned Somerset that their plan was too big for the neighborhood, which straddles the Don Shula Expressway and includes both stately homes on carefully tended one-acre lots and densely packed zero lot-line houses. The charter would face 97th Avenue, the main, two-lane road that provides access into the neighborhood, as well as Miami Killian High Senior High. Another road, Southwest 96th Street, cuts through the 8-acre campus and leads to a smaller cul de sac. County staff told Somerset to meet with neighbors and come up with a compromise.
In the meantime, the application remains on hold until Somerset submits revised plans and a charter that specifies the number of students. The application may be viewed at hrld.us/17Uf9UE.
To resolve traffic problems, Somerset is considering creating two “autonomous facilities” on either side of 96th Street with more room for cars to line up when students arrive and depart, Llanes said. The change would also mean students would not cross 96th Street, which Miami-Dade school district architect Victor Alonso, who lives in the neighborhood, and county staff warned would not be allowed.
Llanes, along with Arza, Hernandez and Somerset board member Ana Diaz, assured neighbors the charter school planned on being a “good neighbor.”
“While it may not be a Kumbaya for everybody, we will certainly try to get closer to the sensibilities of everyone,” he said.
But again and again, residents complained that the two-story buildings totaling more than 100,000 square feet would ruin their tranquil neighborhood, where foxes roam backyards and residents motor around in golf carts.
“It’s all stacked against us,” said resident Barry J. White. “We can stand on our heads and spit nickels and it doesn’t make any difference.”
Residents repeatedly asked how Somerset would address traffic generated by three different schedules for elementary, middle school and high school students. Resident Harold Rifas, who works next to Somerset’s Doral Academy Preparatory School on Northwest 27th Street, brought along pictures showing cars parked on swales, in turn lanes and tying up traffic. To keep his parking spaces from filling up, he drapes a chain across his lot.
“We’re not talking about a residential neighborhood,” he said. “This is commercial and it’s mayhem.”