Thursday, May 14, 2015

Insider Tells a Florida Charter Schools Story

I received this from former Florida charter schools teacher and administrator, Jodie Pillius-MacKrell.


I was very interested in your blog on the charter schools. I was the director at Richard Milburn in Lehigh Acres FL - it was called Lee Alternative Charter High School.  I applied to work for them after being a teacher and administrator for 13 years in the local district because I really thought I would be making a difference.  I had worked the prior 10 years in the same city, but in middle school, and so many of my students were dropping out of high school.  I wanted the chance to help them.  The school was a nightmare.   I had no idea what a Charter school was and I had no idea of what I was getting myself into.

I have always thought that someone needed to investigate the company, but no one ever seemed interested in what I had to say.  I was given the task of enrolling, I was a long time ago... 150 students for the first year.  I exceeded the enrollment by quite a bit, I do remember that.  (I was told I would get a $10,000 bonus for making that enrollment, but I never received it).  Anyway, in Florida, they only check attendance for funding twice a year - once in October and once in February.  Many of the students I enrolled were called "packet students" - they would come to school and pick up packets of work, which they were expected to complete and return on a regular basis.  They didn't.  In fact, after their initial enrollment, many of the students never returned to the school.  During FTE week in October and in February, we had to call every single student and tell them they needed to come to school one day during that week - at which time we had to sign them in.  Once they signed in during that week, we could count them for funding purposes.  I would say about half of the students the school received funding only showed up at school a few times a year.  This bothered me very much, but I was kind of stuck.  I was single and needed a paycheck.  I resigned at the end of the year, but with much guilt, even to this day.
"I applied to work for them after being a teacher and administrator for 13 years in the local district because I really thought I would be making a difference."
In addition to the funding, the work the "packet students" were given were copies of workbooks that the FLDOE had published for special education students years prior.  We made copies of the books the DOE had online and the students completed the questions.  Once the books were completed, the students were given credit for the course.

Our school building was a church.  We didn't have enough furniture when we opened and virtually no textbooks.  We had no resource officer present but we had a lot of gang members, drug addicts, and students on probation.  After a few months, the company put in metal detectors, but we still didn't get an SRO.  There were 5 teachers - and they were phenomenal teachers - they cared about the kids very much!  They worked extremely hard and took a lot of abuse from the students and the company. I worked 10-12 hour days - I was the principal, assistant principal, and guidance counselor - sometimes I taught.   At our board meetings, I was forbidden to talk.  I could only answer questions for fear of stirring up controversy.

The next year I took a job at Newpoint Charter High School in Brandon, just outside of Tampa.  They did a good job at educating the students, for which I give the credit to opening Director, Bruce Holaday, but mid-year, in order to cut costs, the owner told him he had to fire people.  He refused to do so and instead he resigned.  Bruce had relocated to Florida from California for this position - it put him in a very difficult situation, and he was such a good school leader.  It was sad.  I was promoted to director from assistant director and my salary was cut by $25,000.  I never attended a single board meeting - I'm not even positive they had any.  That year we had some really great teachers, but as soon as they could get into district schools, they left.   At least in these two charter schools, teachers had no planning period and sometimes did not even get lunch because they were on duty.  They got paid a bit more to start, but they were almost all first year teachers who could not get a job in the regular district schools.  They were a wonderful staff though and I remain in touch with several of them - all are rapidly rising stars in the education business today.

That first year at Newpoint we only took Freshmen and Sophomores, and the Sophomores did graduate from Newpoint, but the owner closed the school before the Freshmen could graduate.  They were very upset by this.  Basically, the owner refused to follow Hillsborough County School District's rules, he kept trying to out-fox them and Hillsborough has a very strong charter department.  He just closed up shop and moved on to St. Petersburg.  What did he have to lose?   All the supplies were from grant money, some of it had to go back to the school district, I am sure, but everything else he earned was profit.  He rented the building, so there was no loss there.  In my opinion, he had no concern for the students, and certainly none for his employees, which is why I decided to leave.

I got accepted into the doctorate program at the University of Florida that year and the next year I started teaching in Hillsborough County School District. I taught there for two years and then I returned to my home state of NY.  When I think back to these days, I feel sick to my stomach.  I will never work for another charter school because of these experiences and I am always very wary of any data published or information that is written about charters because I know first hand what goes on.   I think there are good charter schools out there, don't get me wrong, but there are a lot of bad ones too.  More of them need to be investigated.

You may be interested in these articles, sent to me from one of my former teachers at Newpoint, as well as one article about Lee Alternative. local/Charter-School-Operator- With-Four-Fs-Gets-Cash-to- Open-More-292778251.html

Jodie E. Pillius-MacKrell, M.Ed.
Educational Research and Evaluation Analyst

1 comment:

  1. Mike, this school looks like a converted motel! (I suppose that's better than the strip-mall charter school in one FL community that was between a gun/ammo store & a massage parlor--& where the "playground" was the alley area behind the store--er, school--as described by a FL psychologist in a post on Diane Ravitch's blog.)


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