CHARTER OPTIONS EXPAND, OFFER SPECIALIZED FOCUS; Additional Schools Have Unique Characteristics in Different Areas of Town

Article excerpt

Byline: Mary Kelli Palka

Duval County is adding five more charter schools this year, giving parents more options throughout the county, from Baymeadows to the Westside to Arlington.

Now the county will have 18 charter schools, including an all-girls school and a charter that's converting from a private Christian school.

Charters are independent, public schools that are approved by the School Board, receive funding from the state and offer tuition-free education to students. Students in charters must take Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests each year they're required, just like their peers do in traditional public schools.

One of the most unique new offerings this year is Waverly Academy on the Westside, an option for families seeking a girls-only school concentrating on science, technology, engineering and math.

In Arlington, Seacoast Charter Academy is switching from a private Christian school to a charter. The K-5 school is on a separate campus from the still-religious Seacoast Christian Academy, which served grades 6-12 and is run separately. Seacoast Charter describes itself as offering an "arts integrated, hands-on curriculum," but the religious aspects to the school, such as weekly chapel, are gone.

Parents in the Baymeadows area have historically had to travel across town if they wanted a charter school option. But now Charter Schools USA is opening Duval Charter School at Baymeadows for K-8 students, and Duval Charter High School at Baymeadows for ninth graders this year. The high school will eventually add grades 10-12. But the two schools share one campus and focus on giving each child specialized attention.

And Murray Hill High School is opening for students who are behind in school, at risk for dropping out or who have already dropped out.

The new charters will vary in size, from about 100 students expected at Waverly in its first year to about 800 expected at the Duval Charter K-8 in Baymeadows.

Charters are becoming more popular across the country, and Florida is no exception. The state first authorized charters in 1996. While there are still only two charters for school-age students in the other five Northeast Florida counties, charters in Duval have continued to grow.

Last year, about 3,200 students were enrolled in Duval's charter schools. That was a 70 percent enrollment increase from the previous year and came at a time when the county saw a slight drop in students enrolled in traditional public schools.

More than half of the 270 Florida charters with grades so far this year have received A grades. But of the 32 traditional and charter schools that received F grades this year, 15 of those were charter schools, with KIPP Impact Middle School in Duval County being among them.

But the new charters believe specialized attention to each child will help make them successful examples of school choice.

WAVERLY

Waverly is taking the single-sex approach as an all-girls school on the Westside. It will concentrate on areas such as engineering and technology, things that Principal Jimmie Jones believes students will need to be competitive in the global economy.

Jones is the former director of adult education at Florida State College at Jacksonville's downtown campus. He was also a principal in Las Vegas and Baltimore City.

He said the Westside needed a charter school and officials wanted to concentrate on making the girls who attended it ready for a technologically driven world.

"They are growing up in this environment," he said. "We have to teach the skills they will be practicing."

SEACOAST

One of the charters isn't really a new school at all. Seacoast opened as a Christian K-5 school in 1992. But in the economy, some families had a harder time affording the tuition.

"We really got tired of losing our parents," said Principal Marla Stremmel. …