Mellissa Butler-Smith remembers feeling powerless a little more than a year ago — the Broward school district was closing her son’s special-needs school, and the protests of parents seemed to be falling on deaf ears.
“In the beginning, we were downtrodden,” Butler-Smith said. “Just felt, like, abandoned.”
The situation at Fort Lauderdale’s Wingate Oaks Center is remarkably different now. Frustrated with their treatment by the school district, parents and teachers voted to split off from the school system and convert Wingate Oaks to a charter school.
If the conversion is approved later this year, Butler-Smith would be a member of the new school’s volunteer board of directors. Far from being ignored, she’d be in charge.
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“I’m not going to lie — it’s a David-and-Goliath type thing,” said Butler-Smith, whose 14-year-old son Ellijah has autism. “You get intimidated at first, and you’re thinking, ‘Well, can we actually do this?’ ”
In recent years, charter schools have exploded in popularity, but so-called “charter conversions” remain rare. There have been fewer than two dozen in Florida.
If approved, Wingate Oaks, located at 1211 NW 33rd Ter., would be the first in Broward or Miami-Dade counties.
There is a great irony to the Wingate Oaks charter push: Nationally and locally, the rise of charters has threatened the survival of traditional public schools. In cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago, the growth of charters has prompted the mass closures of public schools — either because of lower enrollment destroying the district’s budget (Philadelphia) or because of pro-charter politicians at city hall (Chicago).
But Wingate Oaks parents are going charter to save their school — and they hope to keep the same principal, teachers and staff. With the school district committed to closing Wingate at some point, the only way to preserve the status quo is to break away.
THE ROAD AHEAD
In recent weeks, the parents submitted a draft charter application to the district, with the final application due by Aug. 1.
There is still a big hurdle: The Broward school district has to sign off on the conversion. Essentially, the district has to agree to cede control of its own property. District officials say they will consider the matter fairly.
“We respect our parents’ right as outlined and provided for in state statute,” school district spokeswoman Tracy Clark said. “District staff is treating it the way they treat any charter application that comes into the district.”
If the Wingate Oaks parents are denied, they can appeal to the Florida Board of Education, which is generally supportive of charter schools.
Converting a traditional public school into a charter is a dramatic step, and it can become polarizing or emotional. In 2012, a special-needs school in Homestead, Neva King Cooper Educational Center, considered going charter. Neva King’s principal and assistant principal soon were demoted — the former sent to work in the school district’s mail room and the latter transferred to the motor pool.
The pair, along with a third school employee, claim “unlawful retaliation” on the part of the Miami-Dade school system and have hired a lawyer.
“Miami-Dade is dead set against conversion charter schools,” said attorney Robin Gibson. “They view that as a secession from the union.”
Miami-Dade officials deny that any retaliation took place. The case is pending before an administrative law judge.
In Broward, the district last year announced the closure of Wingate Oaks and another special-needs school — in the name of efficiency. The district had six specialized learning centers and argued that consolidating them into four would allow students to get expanded services and, in the end, a better education.
One center, Sunset school, was indeed shut down. But the district postponed closing Wingate Oaks after parents made impassioned arguments against the relocations, which in some cases would force medically fragile children to endure bus rides of more than an hour to get to school. Some students are in wheelchairs; others need help going to the bathroom. Parent David Martinez’s daughter gets her nourishment through a feeding tube.
“When you’re a parent of a child with a disability, it takes a while to earn trust,” Martinez said. The staff at Wingate had done that, he said, and then all of the sudden the district pulled the rug out.
While the district touted the potential academic benefits of consolidating schools, parents saw a bureaucratic effort to save money on the backs of children.
Postponing the closure did not placate the Wingate parents because Broward set the condition that no additional students would be allowed to enroll there. That set the stage for what parents call the school’s “slow death,” with a steady decline in resources and enrollment.
So the parents brainstormed and came up with the charter school proposal. They found a partner in a well-established local nonprofit agency, the Broward Children’s Center, which specializes in disability issues.
The parents also found support from some former school district employees.
The group’s 300-page charter application was written by the Broward Children’s Center’s Denise Rusnak, who retired last year as the school district’s director of Exceptional Student Education (ESE). On the proposed charter school board would be Ken Fulop, former principal of two Broward special-needs schools, and Jane Turner, a former budget director for the school system.
Asked about the former district employees’ involvement, Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said, “They’re no longer with the district. Folks can draw their own conclusions from that.”
Parents like Butler-Smith view the former employees’ presence as validation of their cause. She said it shows that some of Broward’s own former staff believe that shutting down Wingate Oaks is a mistake.
Runcie said he stands by the district’s closure plan. The move was “100 percent” motivated by academics, he said, noting that some parents voluntarily sent their children to the other learning centers after hearing the district’s sales pitch.
“The No. 1 priority for us is trying to put our students in the best education environment, where they can prosper and be successful,” Runcie said.
Wingate now has fewer than 60 students, the superintendent said — about 20 fewer than a year ago, although some of those students had graduated, and new students were not allowed to enroll.
Runcie warned that parents should “do their homework” regarding what it takes to run a special-needs school.
“We invest a good number of our resources,” he said. “That’s hard to replicate.”
MAKING IT WORK
Ron Zimmer, a Vanderbilt University professor who studies charter schools, said charters have been criticized for serving fewer special-needs students than traditional schools. Charters tend to avoid those students because of the “financial liability,” he said.
Simply put, caring for disabled students can be expensive — even though schools that do so typically receive additional funds.
If one student needs to be taught using highly expensive equipment, a large school district can more easily absorb that cost than a charter school, Zimmer said.
“It just becomes a fiscally challenging situation for an individual school,” he said.
Wingate Oaks parents say they have run the budget numbers and can make it work. They are also confident that the school, in charter form, will do such a good job that enrollment will grow — which would provide some budgetary breathing room.
The school’s draft charter application predicts an initial enrollment of 87 students, which would steadily grow to 168 students by the fifth year.
There is no guarantee that Wingate Oaks will be able to attract additional students, but the Broward district has had an up-and-down relationship with its special-needs parents. Aside from the issue of school closures, parents have been furious about staffing reductions, as well as district officials’ general demeanor, which strikes some as arrogant.
Until now, these parents often had no choice but to remain in district schools. A charter version of Wingate Oaks could spur parents to reconsider their options, said Nathalie Adams, who chairs the district’s ESE Advisory Council, a parent group.
And if a charter Wingate Oaks expands — and eats into district enrollment as a result — Broward leaders will have no one else to blame, Adams said.
“It would never have happened if the district would not have run to the route of trying to close a school,” Adams said. “They can just blame themselves.”