Charter ‘schools of hope’ get extra funding and special treatment. They’ll soon enroll thousands of students throughout Florida.

By Jessica Bakeman

Jefferson County isn’t just Florida’s first all-charter school district. It’s also home to the original “schools of hope.”

State lawmakers created the program in 2017 with the aim of attracting more charter schools to Florida. The publicly funded, privately run schools would get extra state money and regulatory incentives if they open in neighborhoods where traditional public schools have failed for years.

Somerset Academy, Inc., a South Florida charter school network, was the first to open “schools of hope” as part of its state-endorsed takeover of Jefferson County’s public schools. Now state leaders are pointing to Somerset’s early indicators of success in Jefferson County as an argument to multiply charter schools throughout Florida.

“Look at what Somerset has already done in Jefferson County that the public system, the traditional public system, couldn't do for decades,” said Richard Corcoran, state education commissioner, former Republican House speaker and architect of the “schools of hope” law.

“When it's working, … we should have more of that, not less of it,” he said.

There will be more of it. The Legislature broadened “schools of hope” during the 2019 legislative session. In its new form, the law is poised to radically change how public education is delivered in Florida.

An escape route for students in
‘persistently low performing schools’

A key provision of the controversial House Bill 7069, “schools of hope” was an offer to high-performing charter school operators around the country: Come and open charter schools in Florida neighborhoods where traditional public schools have struggled the most. Offer students in those schools an escape route. And the state will make it easy — limiting school districts’ ability to protest, loaning money to build school buildings and providing an extra boost in the form of millions of taxpayer dollars.

Under the law, charter school networks with records of success — for example, those with a high percentage of graduates going to college — could open schools in the attendance zone or a five-mile radius of a “persistently low performing school.” That was defined as a school with three years of Ds or Fs according to the state’s A-to-F grading scale.

Local elected officials could be penalized if they tried to block new “schools of hope” from locating in their districts. The law requires school boards to enter into contracts with approved charter school operators within 60 days of operators announcing plans to open “schools of hope.”

If that doesn’t happen, there could be direct financial penalties. School district officials would be prohibited from collecting full administrative fees from all of the charter schools they oversee until the “schools of hope” contracts are complete. That would be expensive for districts with lots of charter schools, like Miami-Dade and Broward.

As attractive as it sounds for charter school operators, the program got a slow start. For the first two years, the only “schools of hope” that opened were in Jefferson County, where the state Department of Education had forced a charter takeover after a decade of academic and financial decline. Corcoran, the state education commissioner and former House speaker who designed “schools of hope,” indicated before the law was approved that he expected some of the funding to go to the new charter schools opening in Jefferson County.

The first iteration of the “schools of hope” law was relatively modest in scope. In fact, in the 2017-18 school year, only two schools in South Florida met the Legislature’s definition of “persistently low performing”: Brownsville Middle in Miami and North Side Elementary in Fort Lauderdale.

Even so, one “persistently low performing school” has the potential to attract a charter school presence that could dramatically alter education in a community. That’ll soon be apparent in Miami and Tampa, which are next in line to be reshaped by incoming charter schools.

The nation’s largest nonprofit charter school operator, KIPP — which stands for Knowledge is Power Program — has opened two schools in the Liberty City area in the last year and has plans for four more, eventually enrolling more than 2,800 students.

The national nonprofit is asking the state for $23 million in “schools of hope” funding over five years to support the expansion. KIPP’s request would mostly cover start-up costs, since the network uses a “slow growth” model, where schools are built one or two grades at a time. Officials said after the first five years, the schools would operate using the standard funding levels available to all public schools.

KIPP runs 242 schools nationwide, all of which share a common educational model: School days are longer, students get instruction in character development as well as academic subjects, and counselors work to help get kids “to and through college.”

KIPP was one of the networks Corcoran name-dropped when explaining the need for financial and regulatory incentives to attract more charter schools to the state. At the time, KIPP’s only Florida location was in Jacksonville, where its schools had a rocky start. A KIPP middle school opened there in 2010 and earned an F grade its first year, but it has since improved to a B.

“Why is there only one KIPP in Florida? … There’s got to be something, because we’re the third-largest state,” Corcoran said in April 2017 when he was House speaker.

He said the “schools of hope” plan was designed to persuade KIPP and others.

“It does alleviate some regulatory burdens,” he said. “It creates a financial incentive for them to come.”

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In this photo from May 2017, third graders at Poinciana Park Elementary School eat lunch with a visiting police officer. The school near Liberty City now has another tenant: a privately run charter school.
© Emily Michot/Miami Herald

KIPP Sunrise Academy opened last year in the same building as the traditional public school Poinciana Park Elementary in Liberty City. It would be one of three elementary schools under KIPP’s expansion plan.

This fall, the network also opened a middle school, KIPP Liberty Academy, which is sharing a campus with Madison Middle School in West Little River.

To help with the new middle school, KIPP has requested $2.5 million from the state under “schools of hope.” KIPP Liberty is intentionally located within a few miles of Brownsville Middle, which the state considers a “persistently low performing school.” Brownsville earned six years of Ds and Fs before improving to a C in the most recent school year.

The principals of Miami’s two KIPP schools are a married couple: Leyla and Ian Bravo. They served as administrators at KIPP campuses in New York and New Jersey before moving to South Florida for the launch of the local schools.

KIPP Sunrise principal Leyla Bravo, a Nicaragua native, grew up in North Miami Beach and considers the return a homecoming. She said local community members have welcomed KIPP but won’t be convinced until they see a long-term commitment.

“With anything, there’s skepticism, right? Like, ‘Are you gonna keep your promise? Are you going to do the things you’re saying you’re going to do?’” Leyla Bravo said. “I think, really, proof is just in the actions that you do every day.”

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Ian Bravo, center, and Leyla Bravo, right, are principals of new KIPP schools in Miami.
© Jessica Bakeman/WLRN

David Ladd, principal of Madison Middle, which is now sharing a space with KIPP Liberty, said recent policies to expand charter schools are based on “a misconception that public school education is lacking.

“Let me tell you, Miami-Dade County Public Schools is at the forefront of secondary school reform, transformational schools,” Ladd said. The district has earned an A rating from the state two years in a row.

“There is not one charter school out there that can do what we do,” Ladd said.

He said state lawmakers should learn more about the challenges that traditional public schools face.

“Maybe the end result should be more support for public schools,” he said.

Learn more about a new plan for supporting struggling public schools. »

The “schools of hope” effect is expected to be even more dramatic in the Tampa Bay area.

Texas-based nonprofit IDEA plans to open 20 “schools of hope” in three or more counties in West Central Florida eventually, starting with four in Hillsborough in 2021. The end result will be a network of charters enrolling more than 15,000 students, which IDEA estimates would cost the state more than $60 million.

IDEA operates 96 schools and is growing quickly, with plans to reach 173 schools by 2022. The network’s educational model is laser-focused on sending kids to college, and it boasts a 100 percent college acceptance rate for its students since its first graduating class in 2007.

In 2017-18, Hillsborough had 13 “persistently low performing schools” — the most of any Florida county by far. The initial IDEA schools will be located near Oak Park and Robles elementary schools in northeast Tampa.

“There's just not a needier part of Florida,” said Daniel Fishman, the vice president of growth for IDEA.

The network has also announced plans to move into the Jacksonville area in 2022.

“We purposely go into neighborhoods where you have very low performing schools, and you have a history of poverty,” he said. “Those are the neighborhoods that need great schools the most.”

As ‘schools of hope’ policy starts to take shape, the Legislature expands it

While opportunities for new “schools of hope” were relatively limited under the first iteration in state law, that’s no longer the case. During the 2019 session, the Legislature made two important changes.

First, lawmakers broadened the definition of “persistently low performing” from schools with three consecutive Ds or Fs to schools that have earned at least three Ds or Fs in the last five years (unless they’ve improved to an A or B in either of the last two).

The state Department of Education has not yet released a list of “persistently low performing schools” based on the new definition. According to a WLRN analysis of the most recent school grades, the number of “persistently low performing schools” in South Florida is likely to jump from just two to two dozen.

The Legislature also expanded where “schools of hope” could go. While originally, the special charter schools could open only in the immediate surrounding area of failing public schools, they’re now able to come into what are called “opportunity zones.” Those are neighborhoods that are identified as economically depressed in President Trump’s 2017 tax plan. There are more than 400 “opportunity zones” in Florida.

A Republican state representative from Miami introduced an early draft of the new law. Rep. Vance Aloupis, first elected in 2018, said he expects the new KIPP “schools of hope” in Liberty City to “do remarkable things for that community.”

During an April committee meeting, Aloupis denounced criticisms from his Democratic colleagues that charter schools pull money away from the traditional public school system.

“We should be excited about this innovation in education rather than the rhetoric that we allow ourselves to get troubled with,” he said.

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When he was speaker of the Florida House, Richard Corcoran championed the "schools of hope" program. Now he's the state education commissioner, overseeing its implementation.
© Cat Gloria/WLRN

A politician’s vision becomes reality, as he transitions from policymaker to policy enforcer

The agenda for the Florida Board of Education’s final meeting of 2018 was personal for Chair Marva Johnson. The board had considered a path forward for a struggling Tampa school: Greco Middle, her alma mater.

Johnson said it broke her heart to see the school she attended experience an academic crisis that triggered state intervention.

Later during the same meeting, the board interviewed former House Speaker Richard Corcoran for a new job: state education commissioner. He had been nominated by Republican Governor-elect Ron DeSantis.

Corcoran said he doesn’t see Florida’s children as numbers or statistics; he sees their faces and their hearts.

Johnson referenced that sentiment as she offered her support: “You talked earlier about the fact that education has a face for each of us. And for me, it just hit home. For me, it was my face today,” she said, referring to the discussion about the middle school she attended.

“And I just wanted to thank you for everything you did in bringing the ‘schools of hope’ program to the state, because that’s going to help those students,” she continued.

Corcoran’s legislative achievement, creating the “schools of hope” program that seeks to attract the best-performing charter school operators in the country to Florida, was one of the reasons the board cited for installing him in the powerful post overseeing K-12 education and community colleges statewide.

After securing the board’s unanimous support, Corcoran addressed reporters’ questions. The first one: What does he make of critics’ take that appointing him commissioner of education over public schools was like asking a fox to guard a henhouse?

"It's not real. Never has that been the case,” Corcoran said. “I'm a product of … the traditional public school system and an advocate for the traditional public school system.”

When asked if he would like to see “schools of hope” expanded, Corcoran said he would continue to push for more school choice.

“It’s forensically proven to be an uplifting and a tremendous outcome for the children,” he said.