After years of fighting the school district, a new charter school is coming to Parrish

Parrish Charter Academy filed its seventh application with the School District of Manatee County on Feb. 1, 2017, and the district issued its seventh rejection about one month later.

Instead of withdrawing its proposal and changing the application, as it often did, the would-be school fought back. Over the course of about eight months, a team argued its case with the Florida Department of Education and then negotiated with the school district.

On Feb. 1, exactly two years after filing its seventh application, Parrish Charter Academy will break ground at 8605 Erie Road, near the Buffalo Creek Golf Course.

The school hired Dawn Patterson as its principal on Aug. 1. She was the principal of Imagine Charter School at North Manatee, where she started as a teacher about 12 years ago.

“I’m elated,” she said. “Parrish is a wonderful community, and they’ve been extremely welcoming.”

The tuition-free school will eventually serve students in kindergarten through eighth grade, though enrollment is currently focused on K-3 students.

A child development center, located on the same campus, is accepting children ages 3 to 4.

Parrish Charter Academy is operated by Forza Education Management, a Parrish-based company that operates two K-8 schools in Florida. Its chief executive officer, Chuck Malatesta, is a Parrish resident.

Gulf Coast Charter Academy South, in Naples, started as an “F” school in 2014. It has since climbed to an A grade, according to the state DOE.

Forza’s second campus, Oak Creek Charter School of Bonita Springs, started as an “A” school in 2011. It has since earned a C grade for the last four years.

The company’s newest school is built on “experiential learning,” otherwise known as hands-on learning, or “learning by doing.”

“Students build understanding by participating in a concrete experience or exploration followed by a reflection of their observations,” the school said in its application.

“How does this translate into what students need to know and be able to do on the Florida Standards Assessments?” the district responded.

The district was mainly concerned that Parrish Charter Academy would not align with state standards or Manatee’s student progression plan.

Conversely, Forza and its supporters said the school would exceed requirements of both the state and the school district, offering an education that goes beyond textbooks.

On March 3, 2017, the district finalized its evaluation and sent a memo to the school’s board of directors. It said the application fell short of nine state-mandated requirements.

The memo also described Manatee’s process for awarding or denying charters. Using a 27-page rubric from the state, district employees judged the application.

Their findings were sent to the Charter Review Panel, another group of district employees who specialize in operations or instruction. Manatee’s staff then questioned school leaders in a “capacity interview,” gauging their plans for business and education.

Finally, the review panel sent its findings to the superintendent, then Diana Greene, who recommended a denial.

The school board held a meeting less than two weeks later. Board members heard from six people, each associated with Parrish Charter Academy, along with one resident of Manatee County.

A new school was desperately needed in the area, and each denial was a blow to local parents, according to a public comment by Parrish resident Lidiane Wartewig.

“We as parents deserve another choice for our children’s education,” she said. “In addition, this would assist with the continued growth Parrish is experiencing right now.”

Public comments were followed by an explanation from Frank Pistella, the director of district support. He reaffirmed the district’s review process and its concerns.

“This is a great responsibility that we review these applications very carefully, that we vet them very carefully, because we want the charter schools to be successful,” he said.

Board members voted unanimously to deny the application from Parrish Charter Academy, which previously submitted an application under the name Gulf Coast Charter Academy North.

The board included Gina Messenger, Dave Miner and Karen Carpenter, along with Charlie Kennedy; then the board’s chairman; and John Colon, then the board’s vice chair.

Melissa Gross-Arnold, an attorney based in Jacksonville, filed an appeal on behalf of Parrish Charter Academy on April 26, 2017.

She felt many of the issues and appeals could have been avoided with more communication from Manatee’s school district.

“The PCA team was instructed to have one person answer each question in order to save time and was cut off from elaborating on some answers during the interview,” she wrote.

About four months later, Gross-Arnold traveled to a hearing before the state’s Charter School Appeal Commission, in Tallahassee. She faced off with Mitchell Teitelbuam, the attorney for Manatee’s school district.

He believed the school was unprepared to develop a full curriculum. Part of the school’s purchased curriculum, known as EL Education, was not developed for students in kindergarten through second grade.

“At one point in the application, Forza is developing it,” Teitelbaum said. “At another point, the teachers are developing it one month before they start. At another point, the principal and select teams would be developing the curriculum. This reminds me of “Who’s on First?” because they’re all saying somebody else is doing it.”

“It’s like building an airplane mid-flight,” he continued.

Parrish Charter Academy built its foundation on experiential learning, the hands-on model used to deliver its curriculum. Manatee felt the plan would not prepare students to pass the Florida Standards Assessments.

Furthermore, it seems nobody on the school’s leadership team had training in the experiential learning model.

Attempting to bolster its argument, the school said approximately 152 schools in the U.S. were certified in experiential learning, not including Florida.

While some viewed the model as widespread and innovative, Teitelbaum felt the number was shockingly low.

“By statute — and I’m quoting 1002.33 — it says the curriculum has to be innovative,” he said. “But it shouldn’t be a curriculum that we have to guess and speculate whether it’s going to work.”

Gross-Arnold, the attorney for Parrish Charter Academy, posed a question: based on state law, did the district have good cause to deny the charter application?

Parrish Charter Academy felt its curriculum would be finished in time for the school’s opening, and state law did not require fully developed curriculum in the application stage, Gross-Arnold said.

The undeveloped program made strides since Parrish Charter Academy filed its application, she continued.

“As of now, it’s already available,” Gross-Arnold said. “So the district’s speculation was not competent and substantial evidence.”

While the curriculum was aligned to Common Core standards, the school vowed to realign its plan with state standards. The school also promised it would find a way to track student progress.

In its application, the school said it would use an assessment tool provided by the state, unaware the tool would soon be decommissioned.

Gross-Arnold closed the argument by answering her own question: based on state law, the district did not have good cause to deny the application from Parrish Charter Academy.

“It is not the type of evidence that reasonable minds would rely upon to support that conclusion,” she said.

It seems the state agreed. After questioning both parties, the Charter School Appeal Commission unanimously voted to grant the school’s appeal, a decision that was affirmed by the State Board of Education.

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But despite its victory, Parrish Charter Academy continued negotiations with the school district.

The school agreed to not open during the 2018-2019 school year, and to open no earlier than 2019-2020. The delay allowed Parrish Charter Academy to address Manatee’s concerns, especially when it came to the school’s curriculum and its alignment with state standards.

By accepting the agreement, Manatee waived its right to appeal the state’s decision.

Manatee’s school board voted unanimously to accept the agreement on Nov. 14, 2017. The board included Messenger, Miner and Scott Hopes, along with Colon, the vice chair; and Kennedy, the chairman.

The school earned its charter, an agreement that runs through June 30, 2024.