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Education

Struggling Duval Charter Schools Will Get More Time To Shape Up

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Valor Academy of Leadership
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Three troubled charter schools in Duval County will get some more time to turn around, while two new academies will get a shot at bringing gender-based education to the district.The Duval County School Board approved contracts for all-male Valor Academy and all-female Virtue Arts & Sciences Academy. Valor will be the first single-gender charter school in the district.

And in a more controversial move, board members also voted in favor of the renewal applications for three underperforming charter schools: Tiger Academy, Global Outreach Charter Academy, and S.O.C.K. Outstanding Students Academy, commonly referred to as S.O.S.  

Over the last two years, the three schools have slipped to a D grade or lower. S.O.S. received an F last year and has received three other non-consecutive F’s and 10 D’s as well as a C over the school’s 15-year history.

“I would add to that if you look at S.O.S. and schools in the area, they are outperforming S.O.S.,” Superintendent Nikolai  Vitti said Tuesday.

S.O.S. sought renewal of its contract for another 15 years, while Tiger Academy and Global Outreach both sought five year renewals.

Under Florida law, a charter school that earns three consecutive D grades; two consecutive D’s followed by an F; or two F’s within a three-year period, must take corrective action, such as opting for education services prescribed by the state board, reorganizing the school under a new administration, or voluntarily closing.

As of now, the three schools have yet to meet current state criteria for corrective action. However, the school board's approval Tuesday comes with stipulations.

“The extent of the renewal would be contingent on the 13-14 final school grade,” said Vitti.

For example Tiger Academy, which received two consecutive D’s in 2011-12 and 2012-13, would be granted five more years only if  it achieves a C or higher this year. If it receives another D or an F, it will be granted a three-year contract.  The same condition would hold for Global Outreach, which received a C in 2011-12 and a D in 2012-13.

If S.O.S. receives a 2013-14 school grade of a D or F, the board would move to close the school next year.

The contracts received pushback from Duval County teacher Chris Guerrieri, who has been an outspoken critic of charter school expansion.

“For a group of people who said they wanted to bring students back from charter schools… you seem to be approving a lot of  charter schools and allowing a lot of failing and struggling charter schools to continue limping along,” he told board members Tuesday.

During the public comment portion, Guerrieri also voiced concerns about the campaign contributions some school board members had received from one of the school’s governing board members.
 
“I hope they’re not being allowed to continue because the chair of Tiger Academy has given at least a thousand dollars to several school board members,” he said.

According to campaign finance records from the Duval County Supervisor of Elections, school board chairwoman Becki Couch, along with board members Ashley Smith Juarez, Connie Hall, Fred "Fel" Lee and Jason Fischer have all received campaign contributions from Tiger Academy Chair John Baker II.

Fischer said that the contributions have no bearing on his ability to make sound decisions as a school board member.

“I don’t think charter school donations affect decisions of board members any more than union donations affect school board members,” he said. “I think different interest groups get involved because they want to see good people in office, not because they’re expecting any favors.”

Vitti said denying renewal for the three charter schools now could set the district and board up for a difficult legal battle later.

“The challenge for us is that we don’t know what the 13-14 school grade will be  and if the school grade is, let’s say, a C, a B or an A and we close the school now, we would put ourselves in a very difficult position in making that argument to the state,” he said. “We’re willing to take that challenge to the state if it’s a D, but it’s very hard to make that argument for closing if it’s a C, B or an A.”

Wayne Peterson, who heads Global Learning Outreach said he is not concerned with the future of his school. The school received its first D last year, after receiving two C’s and a B.

“My school’s going to be fine. We’re not in jeopardy of closing like that,” he said.

Meanwhile, with the board’s approval, Valor Academy is slated to open its doors to middle and high school students this August.

Both Valor and Virtue Arts academies are managed by non-profit Profectus Learning Systems, Inc. Local businessman Cleve Warren heads the group. Warren also serves as board member of Tiger Academy.

The schools are aimed at increasing student achievement among the city’s African-American youth.
 
Valor Academy High School will enroll 125 9th- and 10th- grade students this fall at the Northside campus with a goal of 250 students in grades 9 through 12 by 2018-19. Valor Academy Middle School will house 132 6th and 7th graders with plans to expand to a school of 220 6th through 8th-graders by 2018-19.

Virtue Arts & Sciences Academy  for girls will open its middle and high schools in August 2015 at the same address with the same five-year enrollment goals.

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson