Homestead - South Dade

Homestead council: City has too many schools

The Homestead City Council recently approved plans for a new K-3 charter school in the city. But if council members get their way, it’ll be the last one for a while.

Council members joked last month on the dais about how many charter schools the city had within its borders — Vice Mayor Stephen Shelley posted a trivia question on his Facebook page testing friends and followers on the exact number.

The number is 14.

“They are proliferating everywhere,” Shelley said.

“At some point in time, I’m going to have a charter school on every block,” said Councilman Jimmy Williams.

Councilwoman Patricia Fairclough says it isn’t just the number of schools, but that in Homestead, many public schools are under-enrolled and under-performing.

“This is one of the reasons why Campbell Drive Middle was repurposed. Those schools are under-utilized,” Fairclough said.

Campbell Drive Middle School closed its doors at the end of the last school year after years of under-performance. Many of the students within its boundaries had started opting for other schools outside their predetermined zone, and when school grades were released this summer, Campbell Drive dropped from a D to an F.

Temporarily capping the number of schools in the area, some members of the council believe, will stabilize the situation. City staff members advised the council that they couldn’t stop the development of charter schools only — state law protects charter schools from such treatment — but they could place a moratorium on all schools within the city’s borders.

At an upcoming council meeting, city officials will also discuss placing zoning restrictions on where schools can be built.

The recently approved charter school permit was issued to Eddie Berrones, the CEO of Le Jardin Community Center, a private nonprofit preschool in Homestead that will fulfill long-time plans to expand.

Berrones said every charter school is different, and that applications should be judged individually. Le Jardin, he said, will not face enrollment issues because it already has a market — the students they are expecting to enroll in the charter school will come from the pool of children who are enrolled in their preschool program. These children come from low-income families who often face language and immigration barriers.

“If you have a unique, niche audience, then there is room for everyone,” Berrones said. “A lot of the parents that come to us aren’t empowered to represent their children in the public school system.”

Over a decade ago in Homestead, the discussion was how to bring schools, not how to shoo them away. Hoping to attract families to hunker down in Homestead, the city doubled down on schools, trusting that if you build it, they will come.

Berrones, who served on the city council in the late 90s and early 2000s, was part of the council that voted to approve one of the city’s first charter schools — Keys Gate Charter.

“Back then, the real estate wasn’t moving. You couldn’t attract business to Homestead. We had schools, but they weren’t performing the best,” he said.

Since then, the South Dade area has seen some of the largest growth in charter schools in the county.

“Initially, we were, ‘please come,’ and they came,’” said Councilman Elvis Maldonado. “And our education is better. But now, we have so many schools here that we can’t fill them. The question should be asked: When do we stop? How do we stop?”

Berrones said that the question should be left entirely to the Miami-Dade School Board. Right now, an interlocal agreement between the city and the school board, which says the board will coordinate with the city when planning the development of a school, does not apply to charter schools. According to a spokesperson for the school district, charter school applicants don’t need to provide the location where the school will be built when applying.

Fairclough said the city’s education committee will tackle the question, and Fairclough, who oversees the committee and is also an assistant principle outside Homestead, said representatives of the school board will be included in the discussions.

“Ultimately, it is up to the council. We have authority over the type of community that we are going to craft in Homestead,” Fairclough said. “We will make a decision collectively with all stakes at the table.”