Charter schools synonymous with alternative education in the Tampa Bay area

When it comes to educating children in Tampa Bay, charter schools represent a viable option for parents to consider.

Independent from traditional public schools, charter schools operate a little differently. According to Hillsborough County Public Schools, charter programs are independently run and have the freedom to design their own academic programs, as long as the curriculum meets the Sunshine State Standards. 

“When a student does not attend their zoned school, and a parent chooses a charter school, the money that would have followed the child to their zoned school then follows them to the charter school; so there’s zero tuition,” says Matthew Gunderson, director of school improvement and quality assurance for Superior Schools Corporation. The organization  manages the six Plato Academy schools that are sprinkled throughout Pinellas County.

Since charter schools have the opportunity to design and implement their own unique programs, parents have a wide selection of specialty curriculums from which to choose. From environmentally conscious programs, to schools tailored specifically for children with disabilities – here’s a peek at three innovative charter schools in the Tampa Bay region. 

Learning Gate Community School

Families that value environmental awareness might feel drawn to Learning Gate Community School. With two campuses located in Lutz, the program’s primary focus is deeply rooted in environmental stewardship. 

“We believe that you don’t have to be in a classroom to be learning, and just as much can be taught outside as it can be taught inside,” says principal Michelle Mason. “The idea is that the world around you becomes an extension of the four walls of a traditional classroom.”

A quick stroll around the main campus reveals recycling bins, organic gardens and the historic log cabin that houses the school’s library. The featured specialty classes include gardening along with environmental science. Learning Gate students, who range from kindergarteners to eighth-graders, build their own compost, tend to chickens, and learn all about the relationship between soil and plants.

The program relies heavily on learning through doing. For example, to teach the migratory patterns of birds, an environmental education instructor actually teaches the children bird banding in order to collect real data.

“If we had a group that was learning about, say, perimeter and area; that’s the ideal thing to be going outside and doing practical work with,” says Mason. “Measuring trees, measuring gardens – we try to get the kids to do real-world things, and then incorporate it into their learning.”

Learning Gate students are also responsible for participating in community service projects. According to Mason, the curriculum is designed to help children see their community through a wider lens, and to be more conscious of their individual impact on the world around them.

Pepin Academies

Pepin Academies are charter schools that are also recognized by the state of Florida as therapeutic centers for students with learning or learning-related disabilities. Crisha Murray-Scolaro, whose son struggled for success in the traditional school setting, founded the program in 1999.

“I got into this for selfish reasons because my son needed it, never really realizing how many families out there needed this program,” says Murray-Scolaro. “What’s been a very rewarding thing for me is helping all of these families.”

Pepin Academies currently operates multiple campuses throughout the area. Its Tampa and Riverview programs serve students from third to twelfth grade. Its Pasco campus, which opened this school year in New Port Richey, presently goes up to eleventh grade. However, plans were recently announced to extend the program to twelfth grade for the 2016-2017 school year. Pepin also offers a transitional program for students aged 18 to 22. 

Another differentiating factor is that all students are engaged with a “whole child” approach. In other words, there’s as much of an emphasis on social and emotional development as there is on academics. Related services such as speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy are also delivered on site. 

“We’re the only therapeutic center in the state of Florida that offers a standard high school diploma,” says Murray-Scolaro, who adds that Pepin has never had a student drop out.

In fact, 80 percent of students are able to earn their diploma. The other 20 percent go on to a transition program to learn job-training skills. Teaming up with 11 job partners in the area, Pepin employs a job coach-slash-teacher who helps prepare the students for life after school. Their current job partners include Publix, Macy’s, TECO Energy and more.

“These kids need to be able to make friends and advocate for their needs,” says Murray-Scolaro. “When our students leave Pepin Academies, they’re not ashamed of learning differently.”

Plato Academy

Perhaps one of the best-known charter schools in the area, Plato Academy currently has a wait list that’s in the thousands – about 6,000, to be more precise. It’s a combination of daily Greek lessons, heavy parent involvement, and dedicated teachers that attracts parents like Charlene Iskra.

“I home-schooled by daughter for first and second grade prior to enrolling her in the charter school,” says Iskra, whose two children have been attending Plato’s Seminole campus for four years. “I get the feeling that the teachers are honored to be there, and that my children are known; they’re not just a face in the crowd or a number in the classroom.”

Iskra says the proof of is in the pudding. When compared to the rest of its district, Plato scored 44 percent higher on the 2014 FCAT. Matthew Gunderson, Superior School’s director of school improvement and quality assurance, partially attributes this to Plato’s ability to engage its students in a 21st-century way.

“We have a strong emphasis on technology, so every classroom has a SMART board,” says Gunderson. “Every single student has an e-learning device, like a tablet or a laptop.”

Soaring test scores, full enrollment, and digital technology for everyone hasn’t always been the picture of Plato Academy. A decade ago, the school was seriously struggling and enrollment had dropped to less than 40 kids. It wasn’t until a concerned parent named Steve Christopoulos stepped in that the school began to turn around.

“The school was $150,000 in debt, and he stepped in and paid teachers out of his own pocket, got the budget back in the black, and actually stepped in as principal,” says Gunderson.

Today, Christopoulos is the president and CEO of Superior Schools. With six campuses under its belt, Plato Academy also offers a variety of enrichment activities for students. Its after-school programs include everything from Greek dance lessons to violin instruction.

For more information on charter schools, visit the Pinellas County or Hillsborough County public school websites, or the 
Florida Department of Education website

Read more articles by Marianne Hayes.

Marianne Hayes is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.