Education

Building a school in downtown Miami a tough proposition

The campus at Booker T. Washington High School in Overtown.
The campus at Booker T. Washington High School in Overtown. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The push to build a school in downtown — led by powerful business interests and a school board member who happens to be the daughter of the mayor of Miami — might have hit a roadblock.

Yes, the population in downtown has doubled in the past decade, and the trend is expected to continue as construction cranes once again fill Miami’s skyline.

But the number of families moving into the neighborhood has shrunk, according to a new consultant’s report. And even if that changes, the report also points out that there is room to accommodate new students at existing schools.

Most notably, Booker T. Washington sits half-empty — even as the high school in Overtown finally seems to be winning the battle to improve its grades and reputation.

“We have high expectations,’’ said William Aristide, Booker T’s principal. “There is nothing wrong with this school.”

Still, school board member Raquel Regalado says a new middle and high school is needed — one tailored to the needs of wealthier, international students living in the condo towers of Brickell.

To keep downtown residents in public schools, Regalado said, Miami-Dade has to offer a very specific package: a traditional school with opportunities to play sports, coupled with an International Baccalaureate curriculum — an advanced course of study that is accepted at schools around the globe.

“The reality is that we need to gauge what the growth has been downtown and what kind of curriculum they’re interested in,” she said.

To back her case, Regalado, whose father is Tomás Regalado, wants to conduct a survey of downtown parents to ask, in part: “Why aren’t you going to Booker T.?”

The answer probably lies in difficult race and class issues.

Booker T. Washington’s attendance boundaries pull students from every level of the socio-economic ladder. Kids who live in million-dollar condos in Brickell are slated to attend the “Home of the Tornadoes” — along with students from the heavily Central American immigrant community of Little Havana and the largely black, significantly poorer Overtown neighborhood.

A year ago, business leaders and elected officials reluctantly went public with an idea to build a new school on land owned by Temple Israel and City of Miami, on Northeast 19th Street and Northeast Second Avenue.

Temple leaders reached Tuesday said there has been no progress on the proposal.

“That’s unfortunate that it hasn’t gotten anywhere because, with everything being built and constructed in downtown Miami, there is a need for a quality high school [and] junior high,” said downtown advocate, auto magnate and local billionaire Norman Braman.

It’s true that condo construction has picked up again, with almost 18,000 units planned as of this month, according to Peter Zalewski, principal of the real estate tracking site CraneSpotters.com.

But the statistics don’t seem to support a growing need or demand for schools. A consultant study commissioned by Miami’s Downtown Development Authority found the number of families living in the area has decreased almost two percent since 2000.

Zalewski, who didn’t author the DDA report, doesn’t expect to see more families downtown anytime soon. That’s not because of school options, but because of the high cost of units and the requirement by most developers that buyers put down 50 percent of the purchase price.

“Families are welcome, they just better have a pretty big checkbook if they want to live in downtown Miami,” Zalewski said.

Local public schools, meanwhile, have room to grow, according to the consultant’s report. The report suggests working with the district to plan for future schools sites, but it also recommends partnering with the public, private and charter schools already serving downtown students.

One possibility cited is negotiating seats just for downtown residents at iPrep, a high school started by Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who serves as the school’s principal. As a district-wide magnet, anyone can apply to the school at Biscayne Boulevard and Northeast 15th Street. That could leave neighborhood kids out.

Another suggestion is marketing the recent successes at Booker T.

Though the school has struggled in the past — it earned a D or F on statewide grades for much of the past decade — Booker T. is well on its way to changing its image, activists say.

“Part of the problem of Booker T. and Overtown is marketing,” admits local activist James Hunt, 76.

The school earned enough points for a B last year, according to the statewide grading formula. Graduation rates have soared to 80 percent, surpassing the district and state average. Thousands of dollars in grants are going toward restoring the school’s planetarium, which will crown its magnet astronomy program. And a $1 million investment by the Lennar Foundation is paying for a partnership with Florida International University that brings college resources to the high school campus.

“Many people think because we’re in a tough neighborhood, in an inner city neighborhood, people think the school is bad,” said senior Chelsie Johnson.

Not the case, said seniors Delmy Agurcia and Jordan Neal. Both chose to attend Booker T. over other local options.

“The teachers really put a lot of work into it,” Agurcia said.

“It’s ‘College, college, college. Get in,’” added Neal.

Regalado said the survey she wants of downtown residents will find out what downtown parents want when it comes to public schools. The DDA, which also commissioned the report on demographic trends, is expected to conduct such a survey, and Regalado said the Brickell Homeowners Association recently agreed to also question its members about education options in the area.

“I think we just have to have an honest conversation about it,” Regalado said.

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