A charter conversion with parents and teachers speaking in one loud voice

Rowlett Magnet Elementary teachers react after hearing the final vote count for converting their district school into a charter school. Florida law requires a majority of teachers and parents vote for the conversion.
Rowlett Magnet Elementary teachers react after hearing the final vote count for a charter conversion school.

In a state that has found itself politically deadlocked over whether parents should be given the power to change who runs a public school, a Bradenton elementary magnet school pulled its own type of trigger this week. The vote to convert to a charter school was made under existing Florida law, which calls for both parents and teachers to approve, and the results were a disquieting declaration of educational independence. Parents: 480-26. Teachers: 57-4.

This is an arts school mimicking art, conducting what amounts to its own version of Won’t Back Down, the Hollywood drama that featured a band of parents and teachers who fought to turn their own school around. Yes, there are clear differences: Rowlett Elementary is not suffering. It is a popular magnet school that has received an A or B rating from the state over the past five years and has enjoyed the financial fruit of a Rowlett Family Association that raised $170,00 just last year.

Parents gathered at Rowlett Magnet Elementary in Bradenton, Fla., recently to witness the final vote count to turn the district school into a charter school.
Parents gathered at Rowlett Magnet Elementary in Bradenton, Fla., recently to witness the final vote count to turn the district school into a charter school.

But Rowlett is a racially and economically diverse school, in a middle- to low-income neighborhood, and what is familiar is the powerful sense of self-determination. The campaign has brought together teachers and parents who in other circumstances might have been skeptical of such tools. One of the parents is an active member of a group in Florida, Fund Education Now, that has taken credit for defeating the parent trigger bill the past two years.

“It’s not the direction I thought we would be going in after 13 years,” said principal Brian Flynn, a 34-year school district employee who has led the school since it opened in 2000. “It’s not about wanting to leave the district. We wanted to be able to continue the type of programs that we have always offered.”

“We will be able to continue the excellence, the programs, the tone, that Rowlett already has,” parent Glorianne Flint told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. “What is the School Board going to do to continue the wonderful programs that Rowlett has? The district can’t give us that answer.”

The vote this week is just the first step, and the group now has to present a charter school conversion plan to the Manatee School Board. The board can turn down the application, but a rejection allows the school to take its case to the state Board of Education, which has shown sympathy for conversions. This would be the 21st time it has happened in the Sunshine State.

To be sure, the Rowlett story is unusual in the world of conversions. It is motivated not by failure but by the fear that it won’t be able to maintain its success. The school district is dealing with a financial crisis so severe that it is in danger of a state takeover, and in its attempt to resolve a $38 million deficit it is moving to cut staff. Rowlett itself has already lost $150,000 and has been told its Spanish teacher and magnet coordinator will be removed.

Going charter, then, could be a way to stabilize finances at the school. That’s because charter schools are paid by a state-directed per-student formula that is likely to produce a larger bottom line than the district is now allocating. But there is also a sense among parents that the features that distinguish Rowlett – its emphasis on music, drama, dance, visual art and technology – are in danger. So the push, at least in the words of one mother, is to “keep Rowlett Rowlett.”

Twice in the past two years, the Florida Senate has deadlocked 20-20 after acrimonious debates over the parent trigger, and maybe the original bill went too far. But what is happening in Bradenton is a potent reminder that school communities – in this case a united group of parents and teachers – are demanding more ownership. For all of public education, that’s an encouraging trend.

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BY Jon East

Jon East is special projects director for Step Up For Students. Previously, he was a member of the editorial board and the Sunday commentary editor at the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s largest daily newspaper, where he wrote about education issues for most of his 28 years at the paper. He was also a reporter and editor at the Evening Independent and Ocala Star-Banner. He earned a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.