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More success expected to follow charter school expansion

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image After many years spent in the making, Redlands Christian Migrant Association staff members are eager to see expansion of their Wimauma Academy campus finally taking shape. Melody Jameson Photo

After years in the making, ground for the $3.2 million project was broken early this month.

By MELODY JAMESON

WIMAUMA – Long planned and much anticipated, expansion of RCMA’s charter Wimauma Academy here to include middle school grades now is close enough to touch – literally.

After years in the making, ground for the $3.2 million project was broken early this month on the academy campus just north of the Beth El Mission facilities on U.S. 301 South. Work currently is underway on construction of two of three new buildings planned immediately east of the existing grade school.

The new middle school, dubbed the RCMA Leadership Academy, is to encompass grades six through eight, opening in August for the 2012-2013 school year. It will make the South County’s only charter school a kindergarten through eighth grade institution for a student body forecast to approach 350.

When finished in early August, the first two new concrete block structures are to house classrooms, a science lab and administration offices, noted Mark Haggett, academy director. One will be configured for six classes – two classrooms each for 6th, 7th and 8th graders – and the lab, while the second structure will provide the space needed for two fifth grade classes, along with faculty and administration offices.

A third building in the complex, to be built as resources allow, will be earmarked for the student cafetorium, Haggett added. In the meantime, students will continue to have their lunches next door in the Beth El facilities.

All of the structures that comprise the academy campus – the existing kindergarten through fifth grade elementary classrooms and the new middle school facilities – are to be linked by the expansive, partially covered decking that functions as multi-purpose space providing seating and meeting arrangements plus easy access to and unification of the various components in much the same way a university quad does.

About half of the expansion project’s $3-plus million price tag has been accumulated through grants, donations and fund-raising events, according to Maria Jiminez, RCMA’s charter school director. And, efforts aimed at raising the remaining $1.5 million are continuing, she added.

While Hillsborough’s charter schools, which are part of the public school district, do receive per-student allotments from state and federal funding sources, Jiminez, pointed out, they are not beneficiaries of ad valorem taxes paid by local property owners at the county level as other public schools are.

Consequently, charter schools, which enjoy a certain latitude in fulfilling the missions of their charters, also must be more resourceful in underwriting costs of big-ticket undertakings such as expansions, Jiminez indicated. RCMA has engaged the services of a Tampa-based consultant to help with raising the expansion-completion funding needed, she noted.

On the other hand, Haggett emphasized that as academy director he frequently has reason to appreciate his is one of 37 charter schools in Hillsborough County where the charter concept is valued and encouraged. There are large counties in the state, he added, where no more than a couple of charters exist and their many benefits for students cannot be widely enjoyed there.

According to the National Education Association, the charter school movement in America grew out of an impetus for educational reform in the 1980s and the first such schools opened in 1991 in Minnesota. Charter schools generally are defined as publicly-funded elementary and secondary level institutions that are freed of some of the rules, regulations and statutory requirements imposed on other public schools in exchange for producing certain results that are set forth in their charters and verified through ongoing accountability.

At RCMA’s Wimauma Academy and forthcoming Leadership Academy, the mission as outlined in the charter, Haggett said, basically is to provide the opportunities for success to youngsters in migrant and low income families. And this objective is reached with creative curriculums appropriate to the varying age levels with emphasis on exposure to new cultural experiences while encouraging suitable goal setting and discipline.

Academy students, for example, all wear simple uniforms - red shirts and dark blue pants, shorts or skirts for elementary age or teal blue shirts and black pants, shorts or skirts for middle schoolers, “It levels the playing field,” Haggett asserted, eliminating excesses in the types or expense of school clothing.

In addition, while most students are of Hispanic heritage and Spanish is their first language which may be spoken exclusively at home, all classes are conducted in English. However, Haggett said, “students know that two members of the staff will speak only in Spanish with them and that they can talk with those Spanish speakers at any time.”

 Academy students, of course, get a full complement of the academics – math, science, reading, social studies, etc., suited to the grade level. They also begin working on computers early in the elementary grades and are given choices of “electives” which begin to introduce them to ideas and activities they might otherwise not encounter.

They have, for example, learned about healthy cooking and have experimented making specific dishes in their classes. They have learned the rudiments of chess, identifying the pieces, setting up the field, mastering basic strategies of play. They have learned the game of tennis from forehand to backhand, courtesy of their director. They have studied paleontology, learning about the pre-historic world that once characterized Florida and getting hands-on experience with actual ancient artifacts.

What’s more, they make field trips aimed at supplementing the classroom education or adding to the range of cultural experiences. They have participated in an annual art show held in Tampa’s Hyde Park district and taken in performances at the Straz Performing Arts Center and engaged in athletic competitions and visited Legoland. They soon will be making a field trip to Plant City’s Dinosaur World, Haggett said, adding “we’ve never made a trip that we were not complimented about the good behavior of our students.”

From the opportunities have come the successes, the director said. Since the academy’s establishment in 2000, numerous students have gone on to a charter school in Progress Village where performing arts are the focus and there now are former Wimauma Academy students earning degrees from the University of South Florida.

The Redlands Christian Migrant Association is headquartered in Immokalee and dedicated to assisting the mostly Hispanic migrant population attracted initially to Florida’s agricultural work, then settling increasingly around the state. It operates two charter schools and 70 educational centers.

Its new Leadership Academy middle school expansion at Wimauma, Haggett suggested, can be anticipated not only to expand the educational opportunities for more charter school students in higher grades but also to increase the number and range of their successes.

Copyright 2012 Melody Jameson

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