‘My message is that Florida is about choice in education’

Florida’s top education official offered a strong pitch for continued expansion of school choice options Wednesday after visiting a Tampa charter school where a quarter of students are dually enrolled in community college classes.

“My message is that Florida is about choice in education,” Kathleen Shanahan, chair of the Florida Board of Education, told redefinED. The state board is “all for reform and we’re all for (school choice) options and we have to continue to be strong advocates for that.”

Shanahan’s comments come in the wake of heightened media scrutiny of charter schools in Florida, which now number more than 500 and enroll 180,000 students.

To be clear, there are some problematic charters that are underperforming and/or financially mismanaged. But the evidence suggests charter students as a whole are performing as well if not better than like students in traditional public schools. And there’s no doubt parents can’t get enough of them: In the last six years, enrollment in Florida charters has doubled.

“They’re exceeding their timeline of excellence and performance and impacting the overall system of education,” Shanahan said.

Shanahan visited the 300-student Brooks-DeBartolo Collegiate High School along with MaryEllen Elia, superintendent of Hillsborough County schools and Mike Kooi, executive director of the Florida Department of Education’s parental choice office. Other state Board of Education members also visited charters this week as part of National Charter School Week.

Tucked away in a gritty stretch of north Tampa, Brooks-DeBartolo was co-founded five years ago by Derrick Brooks, the former All-Pro linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

After earning a C and then a D grade from the state in its first two years, the school racked up A’s in the last two. Twenty-three percent of its students are dual enrolled in community college classes and some graduate with as many as 50 college credits. All 67 students graduating next month are headed for higher ed.

“Where we’re going, it’s limitless,” Brooks said.

And yet, he told Shanahan, one of the school’s biggest challenges is getting word out about its success so more parents know about it. No traditional news media covered Wednesday’s visit.

Martha Stein, president of the school’s parent advisory council, said Brooks-DeBartolo has been good for her daughter. It’s so small and close-knit, her daughter is able to communicate with teachers via email about class work. At a traditional public high school, she said, her daughter would have been lost “in a sea of 1,000 people.”

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at rmatus@stepupforstudents.org or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at facebook.com/redefinedonline.


Shardawn Monroe

Education is the key! I have learned so much from Derrick Brooks! The brooks brunch changed my life by helping people and enhancing my education so I can be the best at what I love to do! I am very excited about the charter schools and I hope they will be around when my children are old enough to go there!

Ron Matus

Hi Shardawn, thanks so much for taking time out to write your thoughts. It’s a shame to me that Brooks-Debartolo and other charter schools that are performing well don’t get more attention. Maybe through a forum like this one, and with you and other students and parents speaking up, we can change that.

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