Tale of two charter schools

March 17, 2012

There were two charter schools that had questions asked of them at Friday’s board workshop: Newpoint Pensacola and A.A. Dixon.

Newpoint Pensacola is the new charter high school. It started with 92 kids and now is down to 72. At the workshop, they introduced a new management team—just one month into the second semester. The school’s financials show that the school and its elementary sister owe its management company $248,000. The high school has no science lab and the spokesperson said that the students are doing their labs online. When asked about the school relocating, she was vague and only agreed to talk to board members privately about it. Clearly, the school has issues–losing over 20 percent of its students, replacing its administration and getting $248K in debt in less than six months.

A.A. Dixon didn’t get the same treatment. Remember this elementary school has taken some of the lowest performing children in the school district and had trouble with the FCAT its first year. The school was started by a management company that Superintendent Malcolm Thomas approved. The school also had an operating deficit over $100K…a federal audit recently revealed that the district had failed to give the school its Title 1 money, $62,658.

Last summer, Rev. Lutimothy May stepped up to reorganize the school.“I got involved because they needed some intervention, some help, some direction,” May told the IN, when we interviewed him about the school last fall (“The Hammer or Redemption“).

The teachers have taken pay cuts, big donors have stepped up and the old debts are being knocked down. Yet the School District does its best to embarrass, ridicule and shutdown the school. They want to keep feeding the daily newspaper negative articles about the school.

Back in September, Thomas and School Board member Jeff Bergosh made it clear that they didn’t want the school to exist. The district wanted to maximize the enrollment of its Global Learning Academy and saw the A.A. Dixon as profitable fodder. With each negative PNJ article, parents pull their children from the school.

When May and the new principal met with the school board in August 2011, Bergosh wanted to shut the school down: “I’d like to terminate your charter tonight,” he told the school officials.

Taking the school so late in the planning process put A.A. Dixon at a huge disadvantage. Left $100,000 in the hole by the prior management and trying to rebuild a staff and board, May had a nearly impossible task, especially knowing Thomas, the district administration and the board expected and, at least in the case of Bergosh, wanted him to fail.

Remember it was May’s church, Friendship Missionary Baptist, that tried two years ago to buy the closed Brownsville Middle School. Thomas wanted to get $1.4 million for the dilapidated facility and later “generously” agreed to drop the price to $1 million. After the church found that the school had a busted water line and other construction issues that could run as high as $1 million to repair, Rev. May dropped his offer to $500,000. Thomas refused to send the new offer to the board for a vote and today it looks like he will have to bulldoze the building to get buyers interested.

So the Dixon management and finances get scrutinized. Newpoint gets a free pass. Bergosh jumped on Rev. May at one board workshop about recruiting students—even demanding that the school promise to not do so. However, yesterday he had no problems with Newpoint advertising for pupils.

When Dixon had trouble hiring reading coaches, the district offered no help. A large part of the operating expenses at the school has been the transportation. The district drug its feet on giving them buses, stepped in and stopped the Harris charter school from helping them and the busses that they finally gave Dixon had $5000-$7000 worth repairs needed for each.

Yesterday, DOE made its presentation of its review of the school. They told the board they felt, based on last year’s scores, it would be very difficult for the school to meet the new standards. Bergosh was so excited he nearly wet himself. He sat back in his chair gloating and couldn’t wait to jump on the school principal.

What got ignored was the DOE official also said that a one-year turnaround with these students was unreasonable. Thomas bragged about what Oakcrest going from F to A–but he failed to say that they took five years to do it.

On his blog, Bergosh, who has yet to visit Dixon despite numerous invitations from Rev. May, calls the school “the slow-motion train wreck.”

There has been a disturbing pattern with the School District – successes are claimed and failures are someone else’s fault. Instead of blasting the school principal and Rev. May, the board and district should praise them for stepping up and trying to rescue this school that serves some of the most challenged kids in the district.

Sitting in the audience, I wanted someone to point out that last year is, at least partially, the fault of the board and district. They have given the 2011-12 board and administration grief for Thomas’ lack of oversight in 2010-11 and his selection of a bad management company to run the school.

The district wants A.A. Dixon to fail. Yesterday, they got a report that showed they may get what they want.

Excuse me for not celebrating. I’m praying for the miracle that Rev. May, his board, teachers and parents want to see happen.

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