Rowlett Middle charter school prepares for first ‘first day’

Teachers excited about possibilities at Rowlett Middle Academy

Rowlett Middle Academy, the first charter school to open in the district since 2014, opens its doors Thursday, and teachers say they are looking forward to getting creative with their lessons.
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Rowlett Middle Academy, the first charter school to open in the district since 2014, opens its doors Thursday, and teachers say they are looking forward to getting creative with their lessons.

The pitter patter of little feet is returning to the former Orange Ridge Bullock Elementary School building in Bradenton.

The building, shuttered in 2016, is reopening on Thursday, but this time as the Rowlett Middle Academy, a charter school for sixth- and seventh-graders interested in the arts, leadership and communication. This year, 300 children will attend; leaders plan to add eighth grade and eventually top out at 600 students.

As principal Jamara Clark toured the campus Monday, he spoke excitedly about the first new charter to open in Manatee since Rowlett Middle’s sister elementary school, the Rowlett Academy for Arts and Communication, opened in 2014.

“I'd like to say we have the best and the brightest teachers who are very excited about building something from the ground up,” Clark said. “Our goal is to let them teach, let them be innovative and creative.”

Alexa Helton, 9, and Grace Helton, 11, help their mother, teacher Victoria Helton, as teachers prep to open new Rowlett Middle Academy. Tiffany Tompkins

Rowlett’s leaders revamped the old building the School District of Manatee County closed after the 2015-16 school year. The Dejong Richter consulting firm gave district leaders a report saying the school required more than $7 million in repairs.

Rowlett purchased the building at 400 30th Ave. W, Bradenton, for $2.2 million in December. Since then, workers have installed new air conditioning, gutters, carpet, tile and plumbing. Portable classrooms had occupied field space behind the school, but it is has been graded and seeded and is ready for flag football. Clark said the total cost of repairs was about $225,000.

The 100,000-square-foot building once housed students in kindergarten through fifth grade. With just 300 enrolled in sixth and seventh grades, Rowlett’s students will have plenty of space.

“It's huge. It’s spread out, and that’s why we're able to utilize the space in creative ways,” Clark said. “It was a steal considering how big it is.”

Several teachers at the school said they were attracted to the school because of promises of greater autonomy.

Media specialist Joanne Torlucci shows off the signs she painted featuring locations in popular books as teachers prep to open new Rowlett Middle Academy. Tiffany Tompkins

In the fine arts building, drama teacher Christy Holmes is building a “black box theater” in the open classroom next to hers. A black box theater is a room with black walls, floors and ceiling that can be configured into many different stage designs. Holmes said the black box theaters can be used to teach students how to customize sets and lighting design and are typically not studied until the collegiate level.

“The school allows us to be more student-focused,” Holmes said.

Media specialist Joanne Torlucci agrees. She has plans to hold poetry slams in the library, and she is excited about greater freedom to collaborate with teachers.

“Let’s talk testing,” said language arts department head Patricia Ruggiero, as she looked for the right way to explain why she left Manatee’s traditional public schools after more than 30 years teaching in the district.

“Many times students are tested every week or every other week,” Ruggiero said. “Do you really think a 13-year-old is mastering or becoming a better reader by taking these tests or by going onto a computer program and doing work?”

Ruggiero has converted a room next to her classroom into a reading lounge filled with bookshelves, bean bag chairs, cushions and plenty of spots where a kid can curl up with a book.

“You have to make children love reading, and they will be better readers,” said Ruggiero, who has her doctorate in curriculum development. “I’ve been able to design the curriculum with not only thoughts of students mastering the standards, but also with the mindset that I am teaching and developing children.”

Orchestra and chorus teacher Celia Sperotto creates a bulleting board as teachers prep to open new Rowlett Middle Academy. Tiffany Tompkins

Torlucci, who came to the school from Braden River Middle School, also said testing factored heavily in her decision to leave the traditional public school system.

“I never saw my video-production students from April until the end of the school year last year because I was doing so much testing,” Torlucci said. “They were farmed out to other teachers who had first-period planning. Their learning just stopped in April.”

Clark said students at Rowlett will still have to take the end-of-year tests, but students will not be taking as many benchmark tests throughout the year to assess their readiness.

Benchmark tests came under fire earlier this year when school board chairman Charlie Kennedy questioned whether the district tested too much, but district leaders said the tests were vital to continued improvement in the district. Manatee’s district grade improved from a C to a B this year.

Ruggiero and Torlucci are two of several veteran teachers Rowlett Middle has hired away from district schools. Clark said he has heard friends in the district gripe to him that he was stealing all the best teachers.

Clark said the school will “meet or beat” the salary and benefit packages offered by the district.

“We know that in order to get the best and brightest, we have to make sure we are competitive,” he said.

Ryan McKinnon: 941-745-7027, @JRMcKinnon

Rowlett Middle Academy, by the numbers:

  • 300 - anticipated enrollment for sixth and seventh grades
  • 600 - the maximum enrollment Rowlett’s leaders hope to have once the school expands to eighth grade
  • 100,000 - the square footage of Rowlett Academy’s building
  • $2.2 million - amount Rowlett paid to buy the building from the district
  • 18 - teachers