RPB Ed Board Hears About Proposal For Charter High School

Representatives from Charter Schools USA and Royal Palm Beach High School made presentations to the Royal Palm Beach Education Advisory Board in a workshop Monday as board members prepare to debate whether a charter high school should be built across the street from RPBHS.

“We’ve been directed to do a fact-finding study on the proposed sale of two parcels of land that the village owns directly east of First Baptist Church on Okeechobee Blvd. near the entrance to Royal Palm Beach,” Education Advisory Board Chairman Lynn Balch said. “Notably, this property is just across the street from Royal Palm Beach High School. We’re going to use the information gathered tonight to formulate a recommendation for the sale of this land.”

The board will meet again Monday, March 16 to determine a formal recommendation for the Royal Palm Beach Village Council when it meets on April 2.

Jim Pegg, director of charter schools for the Palm Beach County School District, said the state established charter schools as part of the public education system, but they operate autonomously from the school district.

“[That] means that charter schools have their own board of directors and have their own administration that does not come under the school board,” Pegg said, adding that state and federal funding is passed through the sponsoring school district according to enrollment.

The school district also reviews charter schools for charter renewal. The initial charter approval is generally for four or five years.

Pegg said his department reviews each charter school annually for compliance to state laws and the charter they are operating under. “Each of the charter schools have different charters that have to be met, especially when it comes to academic or student performance goals,” he said.

Charter schools do not charge tuition or fees, and charter schools receiving “F” grades for two consecutive years must be closed, he said.

While Charter Schools USA runs six Renaissance Charter School locations in Palm Beach County, they all serve students in kindergarten through eighth grade. The company does not currently run any charter high schools in the county. The existing schools operate under the same governing board, which is not local, and sets its own educational programs with minimal local input.

Richard Paige, executive vice president of development for Charter Schools USA, spoke on behalf of Renaissance Charter Schools, the foundation that oversees its locations.

The company operates four charter high schools in Florida, as well as several in other states. Charter Schools USA, established in 1997, is one of the oldest firms in the charter school industry.

“Our focus has been increasing access to high-quality education by replicating high-performing charter schools, turning around failing public schools, as well as turning around low-performing charter schools,” Paige said. “We do a little bit of all of that. We don’t just replicate high-performing schools. We do some turnaround work in our organization as well.”

The Charter Schools USA network includes dozens of schools in seven states.

“We have almost 60,000 students that we serve across the country,” Paige said. “About 60 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, and 70 percent of students are nonwhite. In 2013, our graduation rate was about 94 percent.”

Charter Schools USA was the first advanced education accredited education management company in the country, he said. “You have to have that accreditation for that diploma to count to go to college,” Paige said. “Many of the lower charter schools don’t do it, and if they do, it’s one school at a time.”

Paige said that all of the company’s high schools are accredited and that all of its newly opened schools are automatically accredited. The company opened its first charter high school in Miami in cooperation with the Urban League, and has a system of five K through 8 and high schools in Lee County. “That is the first seamless charter school system in the state,” he said. “It has been operating for quite a while.”

The company also runs a charter high school in Coral Springs that it operates in partnership with the city. “That has a lot of correlation with what you guys are looking at,” he said.

Paige said the company’s success is based on its ability to implement a rigorous educational model, and part of its accreditation process is to emulate successful, high-performing schools. He added that Charter Schools USA is implementing academies at some of its schools where graduating seniors will automatically earn an associate’s degree in the related study.

Principal Jesus Armas spoke on behalf of Royal Palm Beach High School.

He noted that in the last five years, RPBHS has increased its enrollment by 165 students, the percentage of the student body receiving a discipline referral is down from 40 percent to 14 percent, and suspensions are down 59 percent.

“We have increased the number of students taking accelerated courses in the last five years by 205 percent,” Armas said.

Last year, RPBHS was fourth in the district for academic advancement, and it was ranked as the district’s highest-performing Title I school, where 40 percent of the students come from low-income families. “We’re not doing this with smoke and mirrors,” Armas said. “There are a lot of teachers doing a lot of good work with our students.”

In the last five years, the school’s grade improved 92 points from a “D” to a “B.”

Armas said he has heard a lot of conversations regarding district vs. charter high schools, and the “choice” question.

“When it comes to choice, I think sometimes we forget the choices we have within the school district, and the choices that Royal Palm Beach High School can offer within the community,” he said. “We have curricular choices. We have 17 Advanced Placement courses that our students can take.”

The school also offers remedial and special-needs courses. “We don’t cater to any one student,” Armas said. “We teach the students that come to us through the entire continuum of special needs through high-level. We differentiate and we specialize and personalize our instruction.”

The school also offers technical education courses, as well as career academies and foreign language electives, which he said some charter schools do not offer. The school also offers a wide array of extracurricular choices.

“Our student council has proved itself time and again to be a leader in the state,” Armas said. “The school’s business clubs have been consistent state winners at competitions, and the debate and dance teams qualified nationally. The Academic Games team placed in the top three in the district.”

The school also has an award-winning chorus and 25 athletes who signed scholarships in the last three years. The school has 1,250 computers and laptops, as well as medical sciences facilities and equipment, and physical education facilities and equipment.

“We sometimes forget our physical education equipment,” Armas said. “We take for granted our track, our gym, those outside courts, all the things that our campus provides for the community.”

The school also provides fine arts facilities and equipment including kilns for pottery classes and photography darkrooms, as well as Photoshop software and soundproof rooms for music programs.

“Our TV production has top-notch equipment,” Armas said. “Our auditorium is used constantly. Facilities-wise, we really have all that a community would need.”

Armas added that the school also has strong district support.

“I really see this conversation being about the standing of this school in this community,” he said. “To me, that is what we are talking about and why we are here. In the last five years, we have talked about our vision for Royal Palm Beach High School to be a beacon for this community, and we’ve worked hard to reach that. We have seen that every time our community has called, we’ve answered the call.”