Education

It was a different kind of first day of class at this new high school in Aventura

Enid Weisman marked the first day of school Monday by opening her third school in Miami-Dade County.

Don Soffer Aventura High School, however, is the first school she’s opened as mayor of Aventura. She helped welcome 200 freshmen to the not-quite-finished charter school that Aventura students can finally call their own.

She opened her second school two decades ago under similar circumstances: North Miami-Dade high schools were overcrowded and the kids who lived in the Aventura area had nowhere to go. The former principal remembers it was pouring rain when Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High started classes in 1998.

And the first school Weisman opened? It was William H. Turner Technical Arts High in the ‘90s. A few years later she welcomed an ambitious young administrator named Alberto Carvalho to the staff.

“You give a little bit of yourself to every school,” she said.

The story of Aventura’s pining for its own high school has come full circle — and could have repercussions for students beyond the city.

The opening of Don Soffer also underlines the competitive relationship between traditional and charter schools — and pits two allies, Aventura’s mayor and Miami-Dade’s superintendent, against each other.

Don Soffer is a campaign promise fulfilled at least seven years later. Now Krop had grown too big, parents complained. And they wanted a high school they could send their eighth-grade charter school students to on their side of Interstate 95.

It’s a personal story for Weisman, too, because Don Soffer could potentially pull students away from Krop, which according to district records, is no longer overcrowded at 86 percent capacity. And Don Soffer debuted as the city of Aventura is taking legal action against Miami-Dade County Public Schools, led by Carvalho, for a share of referendum funding to pay its charter school teachers more. Weisman has recused herself from that vote.

“A high school becomes the heart and soul of our community,” Weisman said. “It’s a wonderful thing for any city to be able to have a high school.”

“We’re a complete city,” said Aventura Commissioner Howard Weinberg. “The only thing we were lacking was a high school.”

School district officials are banking on the idea that some students will still see Krop as an attractive option for athletics and magnet programs.

“Anytime a new school opens up in the area, it can change the dynamics,” said School Board member Martin Karp, who represents the Aventura area. “And this has happened a number of times over the years. What you always hear is that people want to make sure the existing school gets the attention and the resources it deserves and the students there deserve.”

Carvalho is unfazed.

“I don’t have any concerns,” he said. In fact, he sees the trend going the other way in other neighborhood high schools. “Krop is always by design an inclusive school.”

While campaigning for the 2012 general obligation bond, Carvalho promised that he would replicate his downtown iPrep Academy school for Aventura families by opening a satellite location serving grades 6-12 on Krop’s campus.

“That will be an important balance to that part of the county,” he said.

But that didn’t satisfy Aventura parents’ desire for their own high school, and Carvalho said the iPrep campus wasn’t in reaction to the creation of Don Soffer.

“Our theory of reaction has never been a response to the competition,” he said.

It’s not clear if or how the opening of Don Soffer has impacted Krop’s freshman class. Krop Principal Adam Kosnitzky did not return requests for comment. Carvalho didn’t know, either.

Weisman says she isn’t sure what the impact could be on her former school, but she rejects the notion that only high-performing kids come from Aventura. And she doubts Don Soffer, which will only serve up to 800 students throughout the four years of high school, will affect Krop’s enrollment of 2,400.

“At this point I really wouldn’t know,” she said. “Krop changes its offerings. It really should be customer-driven.”

Krop’s star power has waned with the opening of other high school options, including Alonzo and Tracy Mourning High School and MAST at FIU’s Biscayne Bay Campus.

“It’s not that our kids weren’t there, it’s that maybe the problem is a little deeper,” she said. “It’s hard to maintain grades in the accountability system.”

Weisman added: “It’s not something that I wanted to happen.”

She says charter schools run by municipalities have more accountability and can make quick decisions without much red tape. That’s why she believes Don Soffer and ACES, the city’s K-8 school, should be the exceptions and receive a cut of the funding generated by a school property tax referendum boosting teacher pay. Charter Schools USA operates both schools in a contract with the city.

Governments in the state of Florida cannot sue each other by law, but Aventura has triggered a mediation process with the school district. The school district has retained legal counsel, but a mediation date has not been set.

“There’s only one goal. There’s no hidden agenda,” Weisman said. “All I ever want is for kids to get the best education possible.”

Weisman is sure that can be found in a small environment like Don Soffer. The city purchased the land, located at 3151 NE 213th St., next to Waterways Park, from Gulfstream Park Racing and Casino. There are horses in the back of the 53,000-square-foot campus, and though the top two floors are still unfinished and the basketball court is yet to be coated in shellac, classrooms are furnished with adjustable standing desks and others topped with white boards.

The school’s own namesake, Aventura developer Don Soffer, paid a visit Monday.

“It’s a very beautiful school,” said Soffer, 86. “I’m very proud to have my name on it.”

Students spent the first day navigating the halls and meeting their teachers, many of whom taught at Krop and live in the area.

“Much more individuality, much more,” at Don Soffer compared to Krop, said honors biology teacher Gary Feilich. He spent 18 years teaching at Krop, those first few years under Weisman.

Students said going to school close by was a big draw.

“It’s really close and convenient,” said Ellis Landauer, 14, who walked to the school. “It seems like it’ll become a good school.”

It’s not clear how many students live in Aventura. Principal David McKnight said the school forecast that 16 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch. There are 27 students identified as requiring special education and there are 34 students who are English language learners.

The first day of school ended with a school club fair. Remixed songs thumped from a DJ stand and students snacked on ice cream and Popsicles.

Goldie Silbermann made her rounds signing up to be a “trailblazer” to start fundraising, activities and leadership opportunities, as well as volleyball, basketball, soccer, yoga and student government.

“It’s a really nice school and it’s a really good experience,” said Silbermann, 14.

Aaron Scetbon signed up for robotics with some of his friends.

“It’s good,” the 14-year-old said of his first day. “I love this school.”

Don Soffer Aventura High was one of 11 charter schools that opened their doors for the first time Monday. One in every five students in Miami-Dade County attends a charter school.

Carvalho visited his own itinerary of schools Monday, including charter schools administered by the district. He reported no major issues on the first day of school: 94% of buses were on time, the schools police force had a 100% attendance rate and the district saw the lowest number of teacher vacancies in a decade.

He called it “the most seamless, smoothest opening I can recall in my decade as superintendent.”

This story was updated to clarify that Miami-Dade County Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho joined William H. Turner Technical Arts High School a few years after its opening.

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