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Published in Print: September 24, 2003, as Using Charter Powers, Booming Fla. City Opts To Build Own Schools

Using Charter Powers, Booming Fla. City Opts To Build Own Schools

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In five years, this city managed to build what is believed to be the nation's first municipally operated, K-12 system of charter schools. Ask its leaders how, and their answer boils down to this: We were desperate, so we found a way.

"We didn't set out to be a model; we didn't even set out to be a K-12 system," said City Manager Charles F. Dodge, a 56-year-old Massachusetts transplant who has run this Fort Lauderdale suburb since 1989. "But the schools were so overcrowded that there were no seats for the children."

At a time when charter schools are being dismissed in some quarters as failed experiments, Pembroke Pines' reputation as a success story is spreading.

With high grades from Florida's state accountability program, despite a slender per- pupil budget, the schools have been touted by Gov. Jeb Bush as well as such national, pro-charter groups as the Washington-based Center for Education Reform and the National Charter School Clearinghouse.

While a growing number of Florida municipalities have begun opening charter schools, most are being run by outside management organizations, and none besides Pembroke Pines has created an entire system. City officials elsewhere, including Indianapolis and Milwaukee, have granted charters, but do not run the schools.

"We think it's a trend that will probably catch on across the country," Steve Rollin, a professor and the executive associate dean of the college of education at Florida State University in Tallahassee, said of the concept of city-run charter systems. "It's a very interesting idea."

Crowding Continues

Space is still very much an issue in Pembroke Pines, a compact rectangle of real estate bracketed by the beachfront city of Hollywood on the east and the Everglades on the west. While the city's meteoric growth rate of the 1990s has slowed, many of the local schools run by the countywide public school system are still seriously overenrolled.

The way city officials see it, though, the problem would be that much worse if they hadn't pulled out the stops to build seven new schools faster and more cheaply than the Broward County district is able to do. Staffed with teachers who work for the city and principals who report directly to Mr. Dodge, the schools are accommodating 5,200 students this year—on top of the 800 children in the city's fee-based preschool program.

The chief of the 279,000-student Broward County school district, who said he's trying to establish "a nonadversarial relationship" with the city-run schools, acknowledges that the Pembroke Pines charter network has provided needed seats.

"When you're the fifth-largest system in America, and you're growing by 10,000 students a year, there's no magic bullet," said Superintendent Frank Till, who came to Broward from San Diego in 1999, the year after Pembroke Pines opened its first charter school. "These schools created facilities for 6,000 students, and that to me is a positive."

Still, relations between the city and the district are cool, although the district granted charters for the first six schools. The same can be said of the Broward Teachers Union, which questions whether the nonunionized schools are living up to the vision of charter schools as laboratories for innovation, among other concerns.

"Providing small class sizes is not innovative. Providing low computer-to-student ratios is not innovative. Providing beautiful campuses is not innovative," said John Ristow, the spokesman for the 11,000-member union. "It's what we should be providing in every public school."

A 'Boomburb' Is Born

When Hurricane Andrew ripped through South Florida in 1992 on its way toward becoming the nation's costliest natural disaster, damage was especially severe just south of Broward County. Pembroke Pines still had large tracts of developable land, and refugees began gobbling up the new homes that were rapidly rising there.

The post-Andrew influx, along with migration from other states, helped fuel a building boom that stands out as unusual even in a region where tempestuous growth is as common as palm trees. When a pair of demographers coined the term "boomburbs" in 2001 for a new breed of large, fast-growing, suburban- style cities, Pembroke Pines was just one of 53 communities nationwide to make their list.

As the population of Pembroke Pines exploded from 65,000 in 1992 to 150,000 today, it fell to the Broward County school district to find seats for the school-age children among the newcomers. But to local residents, overflowing classrooms and trailer parks of portables were signs that the district just wasn't keeping pace.

"The biggest complaint we got from residents was about schools," Mr. Dodge recalled.

In the mid-1990s, city officials proposed building a school for the district, but the offer was rebuffed. So the city turned to Florida's 1996 charter law to pursue its own path.

Working with the education arm of a construction company that at the time was headed by former Dade County schools Superintendent Octavio J. Visiedo, the city broke ground on its first elementary school in January 1998. It wasn't until the following month that the Broward County district granted the city its first school charter, after a lobbyist working for the city helped to win quiet passage of state legislation that explicitly allowed municipalities to apply for charters.

With a red-tile roof and pastel exterior that locals now call "charter peach," the city's first K-5 school opened just eight months after being started. Five years later, the system has swelled to four elementaries, a middle school, and a high school, all designed and built by the same company in the same Mediterranean style.

The attractive facilities, class sizes capped at 25, and a sense of order fostered in part by a student-uniform policy are among the features that parents say draw them to the system. So even though the local district-run schools typically earn good grades on the state's report card, some families wait for years for their children to come up winners in the charter system's admissions lottery.

This year, the waiting list ballooned to 11,000 names.

"We were devastated when she applied and didn't get in," recalled Judy A. Cruz, whose 14-year-old daughter had to wait a year before entering the system's middle school last year as a 7th grader. "This is the closest you'll get to private school without having to pay."

With 600 students in each elementary school, 1,200 middle schoolers, and a high school enrollment of 1,600, Pembroke Pines' charter schools are much smaller than nearby district-run schools.

Personal Touch

At an open house late last month, new Principal Kenneth Bass got a taste of the personal touch that parents in the charter system have come to expect in exchange for the 30 hours per year they are required to volunteer.

After his remarks at a joint elementary and middle school campus that he was hired over the summer to oversee, parent after parent came over to meet Mr. Bass. Though classes had not yet resumed, one mother seemed mildly indignant when the principal admitted that he didn't yet know her middle school triplets, who, she informed him, "do very well in school" and are "very well-known."

Besides parent involvement, partnerships with other city-run departments and outside agencies are a signature feature of the system.

Pembroke Pines Charter High School is built on an 80-acre site the city calls an "academic village." Made possible by a series of shared-use arrangements brokered by the city, the school uses a regional public library, a community college, and an Olympic-size municipal pool on the site. One of the school's buildings doubles as a campus of Miami-based Florida International University, and the school's auditorium works overtime as a community theater.

High school Principal Peter L. Bayer, a 36-year-old native of New York state, says the complex partnerships sometimes spawn logistical challenges, but have generated much-needed rental income and many other payoffs. For example, some students are dual-enrolled in the community college right next door. The high school's media specialist has an office and runs classes in the library. And some of the high school's graduates have gone on to enroll in the on-site university.

"You have to work at them, but they're worth it when you look at the benefits you're getting," Mr. Bayer said of the partnerships.

Meanwhile, a collaboration with Florida State University in Tallahassee has made possible the system's newest elementary school, which will serve as a laboratory school for the university's college of education. Opened last month, the school got its charter from FSU after the Broward County district demurred, on the grounds that another local charter facility wasn't needed and could lead to underenrollment in its own schools.

The demographic mix available in the city's system—where slightly more than half the students are members of racial or ethnic minorities—was one reason Florida State decided to collaborate with a city located some 400 miles to the south, said Mr. Rollin of FSU.

"We've been very impressed with the work Pembroke Pines has done," he said. "They've been able to produce efficiencies in everything from food services to maintenance, and yet also produce very high test scores with a degree of student diversity that mirrors the community."

Fiscal Pinch

However efficient they've been, city officials are feeling squeezed financially. The city borrowed about $100 million to construct its school system, which includes 19 buildings totaling 667,000 square feet, and the schools have been running deficits for several years. This year's shortfall is expected to be about $600,000, out of an operating budget of $36.3 million, according to Mr. Dodge.

The $5,300 in per- pupil operating aid the schools get from the state isn't enough to cover expenses, especially for the high school, the city manager said. To make ends meet, the city siphons money from its preschool program and is drawing on reserves from a state construction grant it received several years ago—funds that can be made to last an estimated eight or nine more years.

Mr. Dodge said the system can do fine on far less than the roughly $13,000 per student that the Broward County district spends. But he argued that the state should sweeten and stabilize its pot of money for charter schools' capital expenditures to help level the playing field.

"We're asked to do the same thing or more for 45 percent of the money," he said.

A key to making that work, in the city's view, is recruiting top-flight principals and letting them run their schools. Pembroke Pines' elected City Commission, which serves as the charter board, does not need to put in a great deal of time on the system, Mr. Dodge said.

So far, the city has generally paid its teachers as well as or better than those in the Broward County system, a factor that Mr. Dodge believes has kept the city system's 700-member workforce nonunionized.

Still, Mr. Ristow of the Broward Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, said the BTU has "received numerous requests" from charter-system employees for help in unionizing the staff. But he said the union is "absolutely not" trying to make that happen.

High school history teacher Liam Quigley is among those who say they feel lucky to have landed in Pembroke Pines. Unpacking new textbooks a few days before classes started, he called the system pretty close to "the perfect place to teach."

"Everything you'd want to have as a teacher is here," he said.

Vol. 23, Issue 4, Pages 6-7

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