By LINDA CHION KENNEY
Parents in favor of turning Apollo Beach Elementary into a school for grades kindergarten through eight advanced their case at a school board meeting in December.
The first speaker on the matter at the Dec. 12 meeting was Colleen Bianucci, who said she was one of the chairs of the community’s Apollo Beach K-8 Initiative.
She said more than 1,700 signatures have been obtained in favor of the K-8 proposal. Moreover, she continued, organizers have polled more than 200 former Apollo Beach families to determine if their children would return to Apollo Beach Elementary if given the K-8 option.
“The overwhelming majority said, ‘yes,’ and those who said, ‘no’ said no because their children are entering eighth- or ninth-grade,” Bianucci said.
The rest of her comments, both at the meeting and in an interview Sunday, shed light on the public-charter school debate that has become even more formidable in recent years, especially given friendly legislation that allows for more students with fewer restrictions to choose the alternative path. Should they so choose, they take with them their associated full-time equivalent (FTE) funding, which is the unit of measure for each student in attendance for 180 school days.
According to records earlier this school year, the district loses about 36,000 students to charter and private schools, along with the funding that goes with them.
This is not lost on Bianucci, who said in an interview that the Apollo Beach K-8 Initiative has been “going off and on for years, but when COVID 2020 hit, things had been pushed to the side.” Picking up steam this year again, the drive is even more compelling given the burgeoning growth of the greater Apollo Beach community.
“We decided as a PTA to put together a committee to organize and spearhead a stronger approach,” Bianucci said. That involved meeting with school board members individually, who gave their blessing to explore the matter further with Chris Farkas, the school district’s deputy superintendent of operations.
The aim was to get a task force on the issue, which Bianucci said has been achieved, and that a report on the merits of the K-8 expansion, along with its costs, is expected to be released in January.
“Based on the flood zone, we probably would need a secondary building to house the students in grades six to eight,” Bianucci said. “It’s more complicated for us to extend and build on to the current campus.”
Support for Apollo Beach K-8 came as well from additional speakers at the Dec. 12 meeting, including parents and students.
Mason said he is “very nervous” about leaving Apollo Beach for middle school and that he loves “that I can walk across the street to my school from my house.” Moreover, he said, “my sixth-grade friends tell me how stressful it is that they have to sit in traffic on the way to and from school.”
Indeed, traffic is a concern for parents, who note that the assigned middle school, Eisenhower, on Big Bend Road, sits roughly 6 miles from many students. Yet that ride, Bianucci said, due to rush hour traffic, construction and new development, at times can take 30 or 40 minutes.
Other speakers noted the sense of community they build as classmates, parents and neighbors and that they would like to see that continue unabated during the middle school years.
In the end, Bianucci said, parents are not asking for “a fancy auditorium” or a “SportsPlex” but rather “a public school option that allows our children to stay together through eighth grade.”
Moreover, she said, parents are leaving Apollo Beach Elementary earlier than they would like, in grades up to grade six, because they want to secure a spot for middle school enrollment should the K-8 option not come to pass. She’s alluding to the fact that when it comes time to make middle school seat selections, private and charter schools typically give preference to students who are already in their schools or have siblings in attendance.