Parrish has three new schools this year. This one touts ‘experiential learning’

It was a rocky road to the grand opening of Parrish Charter Academy, but students and staff celebrated the journey with a ribbon-cutting on Thursday morning.

Parrish Charter Academy, 8605 Erie Road, is operated by Forza Education Management. School leaders filed seven applications and fought the Manatee County School Board in Tallahassee, appealing the school’s charter denial in 2017, and opening its doors for the 2019-2020 school year.

“Through persistence and tenacity, hard work and dedication, they turned a dream into reality,” said Aline Sarria, the chief academic officer at Forza.

With plans to eventually become a K-8 school, Parrish Charter Academy opened to about 200 students in kindergarten through third grade. The campus also hosts a preschool and voluntary prekindergarten program, known as the Forza Child Development Center.

The school is located within 5 miles of Barbara A. Harvey Elementary and Parrish Community High School, two traditional schools that opened in August. While the charter school offers another option to the growing Parrish community, it also offers a new style of learning, its leaders said.

Speaking at Thursday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, Principal Dawn Patterson highlighted the cornerstone of her school’s program: experiential learning.

The curriculum was a point of contention during the school’s application process with Manatee. The school district wondered if Parrish Charter Academy could develop the curriculum in time for a new school year, and whether it would prepare students for the Florida Standards Assessments.

“It’s a brand new curriculum in Florida,” Patterson said on Thursday. “It’s rigorous and it’s hard. It’s tough, but we’re doing it for the kids. It’s all about those hands-on activities, making things relevant.”

Experiential learning is often referred to as hands-on learning or “learning by doing.” Instead of relying solely on reading and listening, the model values activities inside and outside of the classroom, combined with thoughtful reflection among students.

“Why are we reading about this?” Patterson said. “We need to experience it.”

Forza operates two K-8 schools in Florida, and its chief executive officer, Chuck Malatesta, is a Parrish resident. Gulf Coast Charter Academy South, in Naples, rose from an F to an A on the state’s grading scale between 2014 and 2018, before it slipped to a B in the prior school year.

The company began operating Oak Creek Charter School of Bonita Springs about three years ago. After earning a C grade for the past four years, it rose to a B in the previous school year.

Parrish Charter Academy plans to grow its enrollment and campus over the next several years. To symbolize the work ahead, Patterson wore a hard hat on Thursday.

The hat was adorned with a blue lion, a nod to her school — the Parrish Pride — and its mascot.

“It’s a symbol of building,” she said. “Not just this physical building, but it’s a symbol of building relationships, building good citizens of the world, and a lot of building family.”