Hillsborough set to welcome South Florida charter school operator

Tampa Bay Times | by Marlene Sokol | June 10, 2021

TAMPA — An organization that operates dozens of South Florida charter schools is poised to expand into Hillsborough County, strengthening a movement in which state-approved organizations educate children outside the district-run schools.

Mater Academy Inc. has two East Hillsborough proposals up for consideration at Tuesday’s School Board meeting, with the administration recommending approval.It is one of five so-called “hope operators” in the state, nonprofit organizations that offer alternatives to regular public schools deemed “persistently low-performing” under Florida’s new School of Hope program.

Charter schools are a growing source of competition for the Hillsborough district, which already loses more than 30,000 students and $250 million to them every year. Those numbers could increase significantly with the expected arrival of Mater and other charter operators over the next two to three years.

Starting in the fall, the Texas-based IDEA organization will open two K-12 schools under the School of Hope program. The two will ultimately serve 2,800 students at locations on Nebraska and Fowler avenues, and on 10th Avenue east of Ybor City. A third K-12 IDEA school is planned the following year in Mango.

Unlike conventional charters, which require district approval and receive some local oversight, a School of Hope provider is cleared through the state, giving districts less power in the approval process.

The proposed Mater K-5 school and middle school are intended to serve communities around Lithia or Plant City. Between them, the two will have 1,362 students when all grades are complete.

Technically, the Mater proposals did not come in under the School of Hope system, but as conventional charter school applications. They did not designate low-performing schools from which they will draw students.

But the projects, if approved, will give the Mater organization a foothold in Hillsborough, which has 39 schools on a low-performing list — far more than any other district in the state.

Nadia Combs, a School Board member who has taken a strong stand against charter school proliferation, said she is concerned about both Mater and IDEA.

School of Hope providers, by law, are supposed to be nonprofit. But Mater has multiple business relationships with the for-profit Academica charter management firm and its affiliates.

“Once again, it’s a for-profit organization when there is very little profit to be made in education,” Combs said.

IDEA, meanwhile, is moving ahead with its Hillsborough plans in spite of a recent management shakeup — the second in just over a year — that followed scandals about executive spending. “It shows you what kind of programs we’re dealing with,” Combs said.

Three more charter proposals are also up for votes on Tuesday, joining still more that were approved in prior years, but have yet to open.

The new proposals are:

  • Cato Classical Academy, which will serve 728 students in southeast Hillsborough when it is built out as a K-8 school.
  • Patel Elementary, which will join the new Patel High School near Thonotosassa. Starting with just grades K to 2, Patel eventually will educate 652 students in grades K-5.
  • Ivrit Hebrew Language Academy, on the grounds of the private Hillel School in Carrollwood. Ivrit will ultimately have 348 students in grades K-5.

The School Board will be asked to deny applications for an Excelsior Preparatory Middle School and for Acceleration Academy. Two more applicants withdrew their bids during the district review process.

Seven schools are on the deferred opening list. One of them, SLAM Elementary in Citrus Park, is set open this year.

The schools anticipated between 2022 and 2024 are: Big Bend Academy of Math and Science, R.I.S.E., Bridgeprep Academy of Advanced Studies, two Northstar Academy schools and Riverview Academy High.

Image: An IDEA “School of Hope” is seen under construction in April at 11612 N Nebraska Ave. in Tampa. Another “hope operator,” Mater Academy, wants to open charter schools around Lithia or Plant City, if approved by the Hillsborough County School Board next week. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

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