Opening day for South Florida schools off to smooth start, except for two charters

Most students started classes without a hitch but some got news they will have to find new schools after the state Board of Education voted to close two failing charters.

08/18/2014 8:22 AM

08/18/2014 9:26 PM

Classes began smoothly Monday across South Florida, where some students got a red carpet treatment, others snagged free shoes and even Miami Heat players made an appearance.

But for children at two charter schools, the first day of school brought unwelcome news.

The state Board of Education on Monday denied appeals from two failing charters to remain open after they earned consecutive failing grades. But it was the state itself that was put on the defensive for waiting until opening day to make the final call.

Because Florida didn’t close the schools over the summer, roughly 600 families will now have to scramble to find a replacement school for their children. And because it might take weeks or months for the schools to finally shut down, both will likely get additional taxpayer money just before they go out of business.

“That is a case of very bad timing,” said Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie. “What’s up with that? Is the state like, on vacation for the summer?”

Department of Education spokesman Joe Follick said the state had moved as quickly as possible to hold a hearing after school grades were released on July 11.

“You can’t just have a hearing the day after school grades are announced,” Follick said. “It takes time for the schools to get their materials together and prepare for a hearing.”

Florida law requires closure of any charter that receives back-to-back F’s. But the state has an option of granting a one-time waiver that allows a year for charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, to improve scores.

The confusion at the two charters was in stark contrast to an overall generally smooth day in Miami-Dade and Broward.

At John A. Ferguson High School in West Miami-Dade — one of the largest in the county — a red carpet was literally rolled out for students. Seniors there have a tradition of sporting crowns. Many stepped up to the challenge to have their crown named the best when the winner of a competition is named end of the week.

Senior Julian Sanabria, whose light-up crown could be seen across the school parking lot, spent a day and a half creating a crown he thought could win.

“I wanted to be different and stand out,” he said.

At iTech @ Thomas A. Edison Educational Center, a hip new school food truck pulled into the parking lot for lunch.

There were some surprises, such as a visit by Heat players at Twin Lakes Elementary in Hialeah. In Homestead, students at Campbell Drive K-8 were greeted with boxes full of shoes provided for free by Speedway Church. Eric Otero, father of 6-year-old twins, walked away with a couple pairs.

“The parents were super excited about the shoes,” said Thelma Fornell, the school’s principal.

The only minor blemish noted by Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho was that two buses — out of about 1,000 — were a bit late because of traffic.

“Everything has gone off without a hitch,” Carvalho said.

At the two failing charters — Florida International Elementary Academy in Opa-locka and Broward Charter School of Science and Technology in Pembroke Pines — classes also began on schedule, even as the state was handing down its closure order.

Though both schools were on notice, at least some parents at the schools said they had not been told.

The Broward charter school said it was considering challenging the state’s action in court. School representative Greg Capdevila reacted angrily to a reporter discussing the closure issue with parents in the school’s parking lot. In Spanish, Capdevila told one parent that the closure talk was bobería — nonsense — and then ordered the reporter to leave.

“If you keep telling my parents that sir, we’re going to come after you personally,” Capdevila said.

No school has ever challenged this type of closure order in court, according to the Florida Department of Education. If the closures indeed end up happening, almost 500 students at Florida International and nearly 130 at the School of Science will have to find somewhere else to go.

Charter schools receive public money but are not run by local school districts. These two schools would have received more than $4 million in public money had they stayed open the entire year. Some parent groups and school districts have called on Florida lawmakers to strengthen oversight of charter schools, but those calls have been largely ignored in the pro-charter Legislature.

In Broward, more than a dozen charter schools have closed in the past two years, and it is the midyear closures that are the most disruptive.

Three schools closed on the same day in 2012. Last year, Broward’s Ivy Academies charter schools basically operated for almost two months without a home — the school opened at a Signature Grand reception hall in Davie, then moved to a cramped church location, and then to another church.

The school district then swooped in and ordered an emergency shutdown.

Broward Superintendent Runcie said the district has pushed the state to require charter schools to get a certificate of occupancy before the school year starts.

“We don’t think that’s unreasonable that you should know where you’re going to be two weeks before school opens,” Runcie said. “But we get push back on that, believe it or not.”

Courtney Odom, whose daughter has attended Florida International since kindergarten, sent her off to second grade Monday morning hoping her daughter could finish out the year there.

“She packed her lunch. She wore her uniform. She did everything that she would normally do,” Odom said. “She knows who her teacher is. We went to orientation. We did all of that. So right now, this is a very crazy, touchy situation because we were really rooting for the school.”

Before Monday’s vote, representatives from each school pleaded with the state board to remain open.

Sonia Mitchell, principal of Florida International Elementary Academy, noted the school is located in a city known for violent crime. She also said school administrators had fallen victim to “unscrupulous developers who brought us into financial hardships.”

“Give us an opportunity to prove that we can successfully continue,” Mitchell said. “We are an oasis in the desert.”

Jamie Manburg, who sits on the governing board of the Broward Charter School of Science and Technology, said his school had already taken steps to improve its academic track record, including replacing the principal, offering free after-school tutoring and summer boot camps, and ushering in new science programs.

“Our strategies worked,” he said. “But we needed more time.”

After the vote, state Board of Education member Marva Johnson said denying the waivers had not been an easy decision. She noted that under state law, the board could only grant a waiver if the charter school’s students had shown more improvement than the students at nearby traditional schools.

The number of students impacted by the closures is just a fraction of all the kids enrolled in public schools. More than 360,000 kids flocked to schools in Miami-Dade County while Broward County welcomed 260,000 students back. The school districts are the fourth- and sixth-largest in the country, respectively.

Miami Herald reporters Alexi Cardona, Jackie Salo, Melhor Leonor Philippe Buteau and David Smiley contributed to this report.

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