The third graders in Emma Rafidi’s class were practicing their morning ritual of greeting one another on Thursday. Sitting in a semi-circle, each child turned to their neighbor and shook their hand, quietly saying, “Good morning,” and introducing themselves.
Meya Freeman saw a visitor in the classroom, and put her etiquette into practice.
“Good morning. My name is Meya,” the eight-year-old said, extending her hand. “How are you today?”
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All this at Manatee Charter School — the school that was deemed so chaotic and poorly-managed last year that the School District of Manatee County told the school that their charter would not be renewed. The school fought back and earned a reprieve. The school cleaned house, hiring a new principal and assistant principal and replacing 60 percent of the teachers, according to school spokeswoman Colleen Reynolds.
Several students left the maligned kindergarten through eighth grade school — the student body shrunk from about 700 last year to 430 this year, but administrators are ambitious about meeting all the district’s expectations laid out in a school improvement plan so they can receive a two-year extension of the charter at the end of this school year.
Most of all, say teachers and administrators, the 2017-18 school year is all about fresh starts.
"We all came in with the mindset that we are opening a brand new school. Even the old teachers who had been here, they had that mindset," said Rafidi, 21. "So when we come in, forget everything that happened in the past, this is a new school, a new beginning."
A changed environment
In order to comply with the district’s expectations, new principal Bonnie Brett has implemented a program called “The Leader in Me,” which is based on the principles of the book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”
Even though they are barely a week into the school year, several students sound like miniature motivational speakers as they recite the seven habits and give examples of how they can put them into practice.
“Being proactive is making smart choices,” said Alexander Aragon, 8, as he explained a mural of the 7 Habits outside of his classroom. “Begin with the end in mind. Always know where you are going to have to go, like if you were going to drive somewhere you have to know where you are going to go.”
In last year’s letter notifying the school the district did not intend to renew the charter, district general counsel Mitch Teitelbaum described a “lack of student engagement,” “extreme amounts of student breaks,” a “lack of systemic, research-based instruction” and “minimal small group instruction.”
Alexander has attended the charter school for three years, and Meya has been there for four. While words like “research-based instruction” are beyond them, they confirmed some of the district’s descriptions of the school environment last year. But both said this year seems different.
“Last year, people used to go in the classroom and just play around and goof off, but people read this and know what they have to do now,” Alexander said, pointing to the 7 Habits mural.
“It used to be loud in the hallways and there always used to be no lining up in a straight line,” Meya said. “Now the teachers act very nice and they are doing different things with their students and we are starting to learn more.”
Upstairs, a room of sixth graders was completing their version of the morning meeting.
Two boys, Syrus Gates and Connor Eli, led their classmates through a call-and-response ritual of introducing themselves and showing everyone something they could do. After each child had introduced themselves the group discussed an inspirational quote about reaching one’s potential.
“What you want to do in life depends on how you do things,” Syrus said. “If you start to be a little liar, you grow up to be a big liar.”
The daily 10-minute morning meetings play a greater purpose than moral education or giving teachers a few minutes to take attendance.
It is about changing the culture of the school.
Sixth grade teacher Kandice Leon, 27, said both teachers and students understand what is at stake, and they are working together to make Manatee Charter a school they can be proud of.
"They (the students) want to see the school better too,” Leon said. “They know everything that happened before, and they don’t want anything bad to happen to their school.”
The school can implement as many new initiatives as it wants, but at the end of the year it must meet the demands of the school improvement plan or it risks being shut down.
The plan encompasses a wide range of school attributes, including discipline methods, educational plans, how the school teaches special needs and non-English-speaking students and how accurately the school maintains its records.
In June, Teitelbaum said the school was in breach of its improvement plan. Part of the plan required the school to have correct and complete student data entered into the district’s system for all graduating eighth graders by June 1. On June 6 the data was still not entered, and Teitelbaum notified Brett and Ken Haiko, the chairman of Southwest Charter Foundation, of their tardiness.
“This constitutes a clear, material failure to comply with the School Improvement Plan and the contract,” Teitelbaum stated.
The school eventually got those records entered, but now Brett and her team are tackling a new stack of records that need to be updated. Those records, some of which were arranged in piles next to Brett’s desk, must be in by Sept. 11 in order to remain in compliance. On Thursday Teitelbaum said the school was addressing the issue, and he said there had been a “spirit of cooperation with the district.”
The stacks of paper are a visible reminder of just one of the many tasks that need to be done in order to get the school on the right track. Brett was given wide authority to make the necessary changes, and she is confident the school will get there.
“Right now we are fixing some things we needed to fix from last year, and we are almost there,” Brett said. “We are taking care of that as we speak.”