Flush with charter success, Rowlett Academy for Arts plans to open middle school

BRADENTON -- Coming off a successful first year as a conversion charter, Rowlett Academy for Arts and Communication is planning a middle school that would follow the same model.

"We've done very well," Principal Bryan Flynn said. "It was a very calm year."

Rowlett opened the 2014-15 school year as the only new charter in Manatee County. Of 12 charter schools in Manatee County School District, Rowlett is the only conversion charter.

Rowlett had been a public school run by the district with a focus on the arts. Hard financial times and district cutbacks were threatening to shutter programs Rowlett families held near and dear to their hearts, Flynn said. So the school community voted to become a charter school.

With the elementary charter in place, they hope to emulate the program for older students -- allowing current students to continue their education at Rowlett.

"Now we have an avenue to look at a middle school," Flynn said, who hopes to open it for the 2017-18 year.

Smooth transition

Once they were out from under the directives of the Manatee County School District, Rowlett school leaders had more leeway with decision making.

One of the biggest examples? Testing, which dominates the conversation at public schools across the state.

Charter students are required to take the same stan

dardized tests, but Flynn and his team can decide how often they assess whether students are prepared for the tests.

"You can't fatten the cow if you're constantly weighing the cow," Flynn said.

For teachers, that's a great blessing.

Betsy Smith, a first-grade teacher, spent 21 years in the Manatee County School District, most recently at McNeal Elementary School, before joining Rowlett for the 2014-15 year. Because of state pressures, she said the art of teaching and learning had been lost in public schools.

She and co-teacher Dru Wallace agree the emphasis should be on the journey. Because of Rowlett's charter status, that is possible.

"It's about what's best for everyone," Smith said.

Flynn was also able to reinstate a robust Spanish program, which was gutted during the district finance crisis. He also added another assistant principal to help manage the estimated 900 students attending the K-5 school.

Rowlett's programs focus on performing arts, visual arts and communication. Classes include art, dance, drama, music, physical education, film and TV production, dual-language instruction and technology.

Jill Wilch, a 46-year-old Ellenton resident with two children at Rowlett, said she didn't really notice the difference in the move from public school to charter.

"It went great," she said.

Finances and the future

Flynn said one of the biggest outside concerns he heard was about school money management.

Charters get a portion of money from the state, which flows through the district first. With that money, the charters pay teachers and provide programming. Rowlett sends some money to pay for district transportation costs, and last year paid for district food services as well.

This year, Rowlett implemented and is paying for its own food service program, but it's still using district transportation service.

The Rowlett Board -- which includes Debra Childs Woithe, Fred Moore, Robert Sket, Marisol Rodriguez, Scott Brownell and Wilch -- approved a 3 percent raise for 103 teachers and staff at the school. With strong finances from one year rolling into the next, the board has given its blessing to pursuing a middle school to continue the Rowlett model and program, which Flynn said parents and students have been clamoring to do.

Right now, Rowlett students entering middle school break off and attend upward of 14 different schools, including Manatee School For the Arts, another charter.

With the board's blessing, Rowlett administrators will start scouting possible middle school sites and putting together an application. If the application is sent to the Manatee County School Board by Aug. 1, 2016, the middle school could be open in time for the 2017-18 academic year.

Flynn said he expects the charter application process to go smoothly.

"We know what we're doing," he said. "We had a very strong application for the conversion. We expect to have another very strong one for the middle school."

It's likely Wilch's oldest child, 9-year-old Morgan, won't be able to attend the first year of a potential Rowlett middle school. Morgan entered fourth grade this week. Her 7-year-old son, Logan, would probably be able to make a smooth transition if all goes according to plan. Wilch is excited to see what happens.

"The school is just really good," she said.

Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.