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MAST Academy about to be expanded for Key Biscayne students

MAST Academy, the prestigious, waterfront magnet on Virginia Key, will chart a new course next year, but the school district, parents and village residents will have more time to navigate that course.

The Miami-Dade School Board gave preliminary approval Wednesday to expand the school and ease access for Key Biscayne residents in an $18-million deal with the village.

But Superintendent Alberto Carvalho will bring the final recommendation back to the board in July for confirmation.

That gives some time for Carvalho to negotiate with Key Biscayne officials, while parents and village residents will meet in small groups.

Since Key Biscayne has never had a high school, village officials and district administrators have been working for several months to find a high school option for students on the island, who currently are assigned to Coral Gables High. Under the latest proposal – which became public last week – MAST would be expanded and Key Biscayne residents would get preference.

Carvalho said new ideas are welcome, but change is coming.

“The status quo does not help MAST long term. The status quo does not help Key Biscayne,” he said.

Wednesday’s vote came after an emotional four-hour long debate. One reason for the furor over the fast-tracked proposal is the fact that there has been little time for discussion. MAST students and parents learned about it last week as school ended.

At Wednesday’s meeting, MAST alumni, students and parents, dressed in red, protested and pleaded for the board not to change one of the most prestigious schools in the district.

Sean Schwinghammer, a member of the MAST PTSA, said the expansion would essentially create a home school for Key Biscayne and hurt the close-knit community and diversity of the school.

“Harvard would not be Harvard if everyone at Boston was allowed to go there because of proximity,” Schwinghammer said.

On the other side, Key Biscayne residents and politicians argued they need to improve education offerings on the island. Key Biscayne does not have a school and the island’s K-8 Center is dilapidated and overcrowded.

“Not only do we need your help, we are willing to help you. This is a measure of self help,” said Evelyn Sheehan, who told her own story of how she came to Florida as an immigrant, attended Miami-Dade schools and now is an assistant U.S. attorney.

Carvalho made two changes Wednesday.

He is recommending expanding the seats in the county-wide lottery by at least 25 percent and recruit more minority students. Currently the student body is 25 percent white; 10 percent black and 65 percent Hispanic. Key Biscayne students who meet and maintain the magnet’s entrance criteria would still have preference to the majority of the new 1,100 seats.

Also, Carvalho will bring a final recommendation back to the board for confirmation, after the Key Biscayne Village Council takes a second vote. The council gave the first OK Tuesday night.

The controversy around MAST has involved questions of fairness, diversity and class.

“The inability to get to school in five minutes doesn’t count as underserved,” Said MAST student Kathryn Hickey. “I don’t think it’s right that they can get their way into MAST Academy just because they can pay for it.”

Later School Board Member Raquel Regalado, who represents the affected schools, said the proposal stems in large part from the district’s dire infrastructure needs -- nearly $2 billion . The district can’t pay for needed maintenance, much less build a new high school for the Key.

“The fact that Key Biscayne is an affluent city does not mean it is not entitled to public education,” she said.

Some board members already offered other solutions.

Marta Pérez suggested having a regular high school on the campus and keep MAST as an academy within it. Pérez voted against the item.

Board Member Wilbert “Tee” Holloway suggested giving Key Biscayne the waterfront campus and moving MAST to another marine area, in the north part of the county.

“We’ve got to consider all the options we can place on the table.”