By LINDA CHION KENNEY
Roughly one-third of the more than 50 charter schools operating in Hillsborough County are in the Greater Riverview area, according to an annual report on the tuition-free schools of choice, presented to the school board this month.
Of the 52 charter schools noted in Hillsborough’s 2019-20 Charter Schools Annual Report, 14 are in Riverview and two each in Apollo Beach and Wimauma. The report notes, as well, two additional charter schools that opened for the first time this school year in south Hillsborough County.
The Winthrop College Prep Academy at 12802 U.S. Highway 301 in Riverview offers students the opportunity to take up to 20 college-level courses and complete more than 50 college credits before high school graduation. Opening this year with grades 9 and 10, Winthrop is set to add grades 11 and 12 in subsequent years.
Also new this year, LLT Academy South Bay at 1090 30th St. S.E. in Ruskin joins the LLT Academy in Tampa, which aims to “empower a community of lifelong learners to the lead the way in literacy, leadership and technology,” as the name suggests.
According to the annual report, in 2019-20 52 charter schools enrolled 29,370 students, drawing $190,448,231 in pubic school funding. The 18 charter schools in south Hillsborough County accounted for 11,311 students, drawing $80.6 million in per-student funding. This amounts to 34.6 percent (students) and 42.3 percent (funding) for charter schools overall.
Overall, Hillsborough’s charter school students account for 13.2 percent of the school system’s 223,314 students, bringing Hillsborough’s traditional public school enrollment down to 193,944 students, according to the 2019-20 report.
Hillsborough charter school growth has been steady since the opening of two charter schools in 1997-98, serving 224 students. In 10-year increments, that number has risen to 26 charter schools in 2007-08 and 49 in 2017-18.
According to the Florida Department of Education, 12 percent of Florida’s 2,858,947 public school students attended charter schools in 2019-20 in 47 counties, with the four largest counties accounting for 51.4 percent of the total, leading with Miami-Dade (21.6 percent), Broward (14.6 percent), Hillsborough (8.7 percent) and Palm Beach (6.5 percent).
A charter school is a public school of choice, developed by a private, nonprofit group using public funds to serve public school students in a given community. Charter schools are guided by a governing board and operate under a charter contract with their sponsor, in this case, the School District of Hillsborough County. This frees charter schools from many of the regulations that affect traditional public schools but not the accountability requirements, such as producing financial reports and positive academic results. Failure to live up to charter specifications can lead to 90-day closure requirements, charter non-renewal or immediate closure due to life and safety issues.
Started by an individual or group of parents, community leaders, teachers, businesses, municipalities, community colleges or other recognized legal entities, charter schools often are designed to target specialized or underserved populations, as in the case of Pepin Academies in Tampa and Riverview, which serve students with special needs, ages 3 to 12, and up to age 22.
The RCMA Wimauma Community Academy, run by the Redlands Christian Migrant Association, aims to open “doors to opportunities through quality child care and education from crib to high school and beyond.” Roughly one-third of the students are English language learners, and 100 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged.
In some cases, charter schools offer a specialized curriculum, as does the Riverview Academy of Math and Science, at 9906 Symmes Road, which opened last year for kindergarten through grade 8 and has plans to expand through the high school grades. Now in its second year, the SLAM Academy at Apollo Beach focuses on “Sports, Leadership, Arts and Management” to provide “an engaging, challenging and supportive learning environment” to a student population that is 57 percent economically disadvantaged, according to the 2019-20 report.
Like all public schools, charter schools receive Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP) funding, which is the primary mechanism for funding the operating costs of Florida’s school districts. It bases financial support for education upon the individual student participating in a particular educational program rather than upon the number of teachers or classrooms.
For more on FEFP funding based on full-time equivalent (FTE) students, visit the Florida Department of Education at https://bit.ly/3ovg11h for the 2019-20 report, “Funding for Florida School Districts.” For more on Florida charter schools, visit https://bit.ly/34svMy4. For Hillsborough’s 2019-20 Charter Schools Annual Report, visit https://bit.ly/3oCZdWq. The school district’s web site is at www.sdhc.k12.fl.us, and the Florida Department of Education is at www.fldoe.org. For overall Hillsborough charter school information, including key contacts, visit www.sdhc.k12.fl.us/doc/920. The general director for Hillsborough’s charter schools is Jenna Hodgens. Call: 813-272-4733.