How a packed, top-performing high school may change with a new boutique school

Highland Oaks Middle School.
Highland Oaks Middle School.

There is no doubt that the population of northeastern Miami-Dade has outgrown Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High, but a proposal for a new school is raising a lot of questions.

The Miami-Dade school district is pitching a plan for a $12 million high school modeled after a high-performing, high-tech boutique school in downtown Miami. The new school, designed for just 500 students, would be carved out of the athletic fields of Highland Oaks Middle, just east of I-95 on a heavily traveled section of Ives Dairy Road.

The proposal has many supporters but also raises a list of issues: Would it cater only to elite students, and would Krop’s diverse student makeup suffer? Would it worsen traffic in an area that already regularly sees rush-hour gridlock? Would the community prefer to see a charter school go up?

iPrep concept
School district officials presented this conceptual plan for the location of a new iPrep high school on the athletic fields at Highland Oaks Middle in northeast Miami-Dade County. Miami-Dade County Public Schools Courtesy graphic

School district officials are working to address concerns, stressing that the proposal is still in the planning phases. But the district does want to have the high school open by 2018.

“This is a very conceptual plan,” said Jaime Torrens, head of facilities for Miami-Dade schools. “We do have to move quickly, but we’re going to move responsibly also.”

Krop Senior High, just west of I-95 and north of Ives Dairy Road, is one of the county’s top performers. It has one of the highest graduation rates in the county, with more students passing college-credit tests than almost any other high school in Miami-Dade and an “A” grade from the state for the past five years.

But the school is also overcrowded with 2,700 students.

The new school would be modeled after iPrep Academy, the high-performing high school started and headed by Superintendent Alberto Carvalho that eschews traditional classrooms and instruction. There are no bells, everyone gets a laptop and kids largely work independently.

When Jackie Gaughan heard that a new high school might be coming, she asked whether there was a petition she could sign to show her support. A PTA member, Gaughan’s children attend Aventura Waterways, a K-8 center that feeds into Krop.

“Krop is way packed,” Gaughan said. “They have good programs, good ratings, but definitely overcrowded.”

Others question what a shiny new school brimming with technology could mean for Krop’s student body, which pulls from neighborhoods rich and poor, black, white and Hispanic.

Currently at Krop, 40 percent of students are black, 22 percent are white and 36 percent are Hispanic. About half qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch because of family income. The school’s diversity is a source of pride among many students and teachers — but a cause of uneasiness for some parents.

Despite its stellar academic record, Krop is dogged by the perception in some surrounding communities that the school is unsafe, a concern that supporters say is completely unfounded.

Melba Leiman, who lives in Aventura, heard those rumors as her daughter was getting ready to head to high school. So she arranged a visit to Krop and was impressed by what she saw. Her daughter is now a freshman there and doing well.

“I think we need to help kids adjust to the world, and the world is diverse,’’ she said. “I think many times we are not happy to have our kids in a diverse community.”

Krop sits just west of I-95, a concrete barrier that separates affluent mostly white Aventura communities from more modest and racially mixed neighborhoods adjacent to the school.

Aventura resident Clancy Gaughan, Jackie’s husband, said Krop’s location is a concern for some parents. “Once they feel they are heading west of I-95, they’re out of their comfort zone.”

Audrey Silverman, an English teacher who has worked 10 years at the high school, said the proposed satellite campus would amount to “accidental segregation.”

“The top teachers will leave,” she said. “It’s going to end up taking away top students, leaving a bit of a shell.”

Enid Weisman — the mayor of Aventura, a longtime former employee of the school district and Krop’s founding principal — called the concerns over diversity a “red herring.”

“I think that we often tend to marginalize when we use diversity as a cover,” she said. “From my experience as a principal and as a teacher, there are brilliant children within our school system, and to think that any one group of children owns a school or owns access really belies what we’ve done over 30 years.”

Others worry that an iPrep Academy would draw Krop’s highest achievers — and the best teachers — leaving fewer advanced placement and honors courses at the high school. iPrep has certain prerequisites to enter, including honors courses and a 2.5 unweighted GPA.

“You’re going to be taking 500 of Krop’s essentially best students or most advanced students, and you’re putting them on a different campus,” said Michael Katz, a junior at Krop and a member of the Student Government Association. “It would result in a big loss.”

At a public meeting this month, assistant superintendent Sylvia Diaz assured those gathered that advanced courses at Krop “will not be eliminated,” and district officials say the requirements to get into iPrep are not that onerous.

The Student Government Association and a local homeowners association are petitioning to instead build the new iPrep on Krop’s current 40-acre campus. Jared Ratner, a sophomore and an SGA member at Krop, said that would allow iPrep students to more easily participate in after-school activities and provide more opportunities for students to interact.

“They can have lunch at the same spot,’’ he said.

That would also calm fears of local residents that another school on Ives Dairy would add to already heavy traffic in the area. Lenny Feldman, who heads the Sky Lake-Highland Lakes Area Homeowners Association, called the proposed location “not ideal.”

“There’s substantially more traffic and congestion and safety concerns here” than at Krop, Feldman said.

School district officials have stressed that traffic studies would need to be done, but suspect it won’t be an issue. For one, high schools start much earlier than lower grades. Plus, students would not be allowed to drive to iPrep. They would drive or get bused to Krop, then take shuttles to the new school.

Regardless of where iPrep ends up being built, it may not be enough to stave off competition from a possible charter school.

Lesley Winston, president of the local chamber of commerce, said the school district’s proposal is encouraging. But: “It’s not specific for Aventura and Sunny Isles Beach. It serves a wider population.”

Parents in Aventura have been calling for a new high school since at least 2012. They’ve signed petitions, made it an election issue and threatened to move out of the city if one isn’t built. The push has largely been for a charter school.

The City of Aventura already runs its own K-8 charter called Aventura City of Excellence School, or ACES.

The Aventura-Sunny Isles Beach Chamber of Commerce and Community Development has put together a group to explore the possibility of building a charter high school for the area. Among other things, members are trying to find a suitable piece of land in a mostly developed and expensive market. It’s unclear how likely a new charter school is — the idea has floated around for years without much progress.

Still, Winston insists it’s possible and their effort is serious.

“I know that the school board has elevated this particular proposed school both technologically and they’re putting in a very good curriculum. And that’s great. But it would be better if the charter school students continue in a charter school environment,” he said.

Christina Veiga: 305-376-2029, @cveiga