I-Team: Few Tampa Bay area charter schools in economically challenged communities earn top grades

Student says charter school failed to prepare her

TAMPA, Fla. - The Florida legislature recently approved more than $100 million to fund charter schools in economically challenged communities in hopes of giving families more choices and better educational opportunities.

But ABC Action News learned from bay area parents, existing charter schools aren't always making the grade.

“There were times when I would go home and wouldn't come out of my room, because I thought that I was a failure,” said Brianna Nickle, who entered fifth grade this school year.

Brianna said she couldn't go back to Channelside Academy of Math and Science this year.

“It upsets me, because my daughter has done everything. She's done her best effort,” said Laura Nickle, Brianna’s mother.

The fifth grader was on the honor roll since kindergarten, but her math grades suddenly dropped.

So did those of her charter school.

“They're now a  C-rated school,” said Laura Nickle.

“I was heartbroken because I was actually trying. I just didn't really understand the concept, and when I went to teacher she would never help me,” said Brianna.

Eventually Brianna received an "F" in math.

An email from her teacher sent to multiple parents said students failed a test because they talked in class.

But Brianna's report card has the highest possible marks for both conduct and effort.

“When I voiced my concern to the principal and to the teacher, I got no response,” said Laura.

Soon after giving Brianna the "F” her teacher went on maternity leave. And the school assigned a substitute without a teaching certificate to teach math and science for three months.

“It was mostly just watching movies,” said Brianna, describing a period of time when her substitute was in her class.

Other parents we contacted gave similar accounts.

"My son watched PG movies during his math class," said one mother.

Another parent said her child "didn't learn anything because there was no structure."

"So the kids end up basically getting a free day," said a third parent.

Brianna then got the lowest possible score on the statewide FSA test.

“She scored a 1. So basically, it was like she never showed up to take the test,” said Laura Nickle.

Channelside was among nearly 40 percent of bay area charter schools to receive a "C", "D", "F" or "incomplete" on the most recent state report card.

These grades measure educational progress through testing and other criteria.

High performing schools get extra funding, while lower performing schools face more oversight.

“What we all want, what we are fighting to get, is every single child deserves a world class education,” said Florida House of Representatives Speaker Richard Corcoran.

Corcoran says charter schools are the best way to serve students in economically disadvantaged communities. But so far that hasn't been the case here.

The Tampa Bay area has 101 charter schools. Only 35 of those serve a majority of students from low income families and only a dozen of those schools scored either an "A" or "B" on the latest school report card.

Corcoran says the new law will hold underperforming charter schools more accountable.

“You can have a traditional public school that's a failure factory its entire career. If a charter school is a failure factory for two consecutive years, they shut them down,” said Corcoran.

Charter Schools Associates, which is the Broward County-based non-profit company that operates Channelside Academy and 19 other charter schools, wouldn't talk on camera.

Former Channelside Academy of Math and Science principal Suzanne Elder sent us the following statement:

“Channelside Academy of Math and Science has received local and state recognitions for its academic achievement and community involvement, and has devotedly served families in Hillsborough for close to a decade. Florida Department of Education data (2016-17) shows that 71% of our 4th grade students earned a 3 or better on the mathematics portion of the FSA (compared to 56.2% of all 4th graders in Hillsborough), and 86.8% of our 4th graders earned a 3 or better on the English Language portion of the exam (compared to 53.9% in Hillsborough). Our dedicated teaching staff continually puts students first.”

She also said the substitute assigned to the class was qualified under state law, followed the approved curriculum, and was assisted by a master teacher. And she said the school provided opportunities outside of class time for students to get extra help preparing for the FSA tests.

Brianna's parents decided at the last minute to send their daughter to virtual school this year, since they can't afford private school. And they say nearby traditional public schools also have low scores on their report cards.

But Brianna hopes the teachers still at her old school will get her message.

“They might be a little upset, but at least the issue is getting addressed,” said Brianna. “That's the important part. “

If you have a story you’d like the I-Team to investigate, contact us at adam@abcactionnews.com.

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