Parents, students fight shutdown of Bradenton Charter School

eearl@bradenton.comApril 14, 2013 

MANATEE -- Bradenton Charter School may be forced to close its doors this June. But since the Manatee school board voted for the nonrenewal of the school's contract in March, parents, teachers and students have been scrambling to get another chance.

The school is intended for students performing below their potential or at grade level in grades 3 through 8.

Unless Bradenton Charter makes an appeal within 14 days of the April 8 school board meeting, the school will be closed by June 30.

Teary-eyed students and parents have approached school board members, begging that the school stay open. Some students have presented letters expressing their emotional connection to the school -- many writing about their fear of bullying in other schools.

School board chairwoman Karen Carpenter, Superintendent Rick Mills and school board member Barbara Harvey have expressed interest in taking another look at the school. While school board members responded with sympathy, they did not take a vote on officially providing further review.

In January, a 32-member review team, which included the associate director of innovative programs, Verdya

Bradley, and assistant superintendent of district support Scott Martin, completed the review of Bradenton Charter School and found its performance was unsatisfactory. According to the school board, some findings were a matter of concern five years ago that were never resolved.

Shortcomings included a governing board that "did not appear to be stable," according to the findings presented.

"They did a great job with things like parent relations and insurance," school board member Bob Gause said. "But from the curriculum side, the wheels were falling off."

Principal Richard Donnelly says that while the school isn't perfect and has room for improvement, he disagrees with some of the report's findings, particularly criticism of the school's curriculum.

According to the review, there was no evidence of a detailed curriculum plan. Donnelly doesn't deny that the school earned a "D" grade, but he says it is not due to a lack of curriculum. The school grade, he contends, is a reflection of a disproportionate a ratio of special education students to regular students.

"Bradenton Charter School has a high amount of special needs and special education students, many of whom came to Bradenton Charter because they were either not performing well in traditional school programs or were bullied," Donnelly said.

The school was successful in math and reading portions of the FCAT for 2012, showing gains between 77 and 80 percent. The writing portion of FCAT, Donnelly said, was the school's Achilles heel.

"We cater to children who need the individual attention," Donnelly said. "People need to come into our school with the objective mind, The curriculum is there; we just do things differently."

The review also reported that the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards and pacing guides are posted outside of each classroom but do not align with the instructional activity that is going on in class.

Donnelly said that the standards do not always have a bearing on what every child is working on in the classroom.

"The school uses workstations to accommodate to slower students while the rest of the class moves on. Everyone is working at their own pace," Donnelly said.

Other points in the review include teacher-generated tests that were considered low-level and the lack of evidence for an approved budget.

Donnelly told the Bradenton Herald that he believes these points are invalid and biased.

Students at Bradenton Charter may apply for other charter schools. Another option for students is The Broach School, a private institution which has partnered with Bradenton Charter. But for many families, public school will be the only option.

"This school is the best school I have ever been to," said fifth-grader Joe Ryan. "I felt on my own at other schools. This school helps me and gives me attention."

Some parents have looked into sending their children to the charter school Manatee School for the Arts, which is capable of serving some levels of special education. But while Manatee School for the Arts offers speech and occupational therapy, some students require additional services that the school is not set up for.

Manatee School for the Arts Principal Bill Jones said that it would be difficult to justify the admittance of students who cannot participate in the arts activities, which are an integral part of the school. Jones said that the school would be able to accommodate several students from Bradenton Charter School, but not all.

"I am saddened that their contract was not renewed," Jones said. "The school serves an important function in the community. It took in students with more extensive needs than we are capable of providing for."

Staff from Bradenton Charter School will also be scattered if the school closes, although Donnelly said The Broach School may be able to pick up a few teachers.

"This is not about my job, it's about the students," Donnelly said. "Most of the students came here escaping something."

For most young students, school is a safe haven that becomes a familial environment, and making a transition can be tough.

Olivia Tamburin does not want to see her last child still in school go anywhere else. Tamburin's daughter used to teach at the school, and her son visits occasionally to play music for the students.

"I wanted to keep my kids in a smaller school," Tamburin said.

Bradenton Charter School currently has about 80 students enrolled. The highest enrollment record the school has had is 97 students.

The school opened in 2000.

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