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School. Sarasota School of the Arts and Sciences
Industry. Education
Key. The independently run charter school is building a new, $6.5 million education complex.

Sarasota School of the Arts and Sciences Interim Principal Marilyn Highland was justifiably anxious April 1.

Highland had called the charter middle school's 42 teachers in for a special meeting. The gathering, however, wasn't about curriculum changes or standardized tests. Instead, it was a rare chance for teachers to see itemized budget items and explicit operations costs for a specific school — their school.

Highland sought teachers' input on how and where to make cuts, critically important given the 681-student school is building a new campus, a $6.5 million project. The meeting was a stark distinction to middle schools statewide run by county school districts, which normally don't have that kind of independent financially flexibility.

“I believe if you have collaborative decisions,” says Highland, “you don't get all the negativity.”

What Highland got, though, was more than 60 suggestions on where to cut costs. Ideas ranged from eliminating the Earth Day movie to blocking long distance calls to bringing in consultants instead of sending teachers out of the area or state for conferences. Indeed, the teachers were serious, if not downright enthusiastic, about a budget that will live strictly within the school's means.

The meeting was also a peek into how the school, with sixth- to eighth-graders, has defied traditional charter-school wisdom. The fact that it has stayed open every year since 1997 is a feat in and of itself, considering the uneven success for charter schools in Florida and nationwide the past decade.

That success in spite of the odds is now on center stage: The school is building an entire new campus next door to its current facility, a project that includes a 42,930-square-foot, three-story educational building and a 10,670-square-foot gym/community center.

The new school building is scheduled to open by the first day of the 2011-2012 school year. It's a vast upgrade in style and substance over the current school, which is in the Rosemary District, just north of downtown Sarasota. That building is a former plumbers supply warehouse, where some teachers cram into parts of the cafeteria to teach classes. It has lots of holes and leaks.

“It's an old building that wasn't meant to be a school,” says Tara Tahmosh, an assistant principal and eighth-grade language arts teacher at the school. “It was time for the building to match everything else that goes on in the school.”

Local leader
The school, which goes by SSA+S, was one of the first five charter schools in the state when a group of Sarasota parents founded it 14 years ago. It has always been run independently, while national companies, such as Fort Lauderdale-based Charter Schools USA or Arlington, Va.-based Imagine Schools, run most of the other charter schools in Florida.

The school struggled in the late 1990s and early 2000s, both academically and financially, says school board President Larry Eger, who also runs the public defender's office in Sarasota and Manatee counties. A combination of management issues and what Eger admits was a board that meddled were the core problems.

“That first year we really tried to micromanage the principal,” says Eger. “We succumbed to trying to please everyone and in the process we drove a really good principal away.”

With 50 sixth-grade students in its inaugural class, SSA+S opened without a physical home. It initially rented space at Girl's Inc. in Sarasota, a nonprofit organization. The next year it moved to a church in the Rosemary District, not far from its current home.

Officials chose the Rosemary District so the school could be close to Sarasota's arts and cultural hub, which was the core focus of the curriculum when the school opened. The Van Wezel Performing Arts Center, the Asolo Theatre and Selby Public Library are all nearby.

The curriculum, which included multiple education partnerships with those facilities and other entities, eventually paid off.

In fact, after five years of struggles, the school is now one of the top-performing middle schools in Sarasota County, according to data from the Florida Department of Education. For example, SSA+S earned an A ranking five years in a row from the state, based on students' composite scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

The school has also been a consistent county leader since 2005 in students who meet high standards in reading, math and writing. In writing, for instance, 100% of the school's students met high standards in the 2008-09 academic year, the education department reports.

Moreover, SSA+S achieved an Adequate Yearly Progress mark for gains tracked by the federal No Child Left Behind legislation for the 2009-10 school year. Only 23% of all schools in Florida earned that recognition last year.

“There were times when we thought the plane would crash, but we righted (it) and have succeeded beyond anyone's expectations,” Eger says. “I don't think it would be overly boastful if I say this is one of the best charter schools in the state.”

Hope builds
The school made a bold decision to leverage that success last year with the construction project.

The overhaul began in June with a demolition of three existing buildings in the 700 block of Central Avenue. Hollywood-based MG3 Developer Group is the lead contractor behind the replacement, a three-story education building with classrooms, a band room and a cafeteria.

The project includes some other features. For example, the school donated 20 feet of its land to the city, which makes rooms for more parking spaces. Sarasota city officials also closed a portion of nearby Seventh Street and pavers will be placed there to create a true campus feel. Finally, the city sought a storefront effect for the building, so the ground floor will have windows, where people who walk by can see what's going on.

Carl Williams, an SSA+S assistant principal who oversees the construction, says the project has run relatively smoothly, with only minor delays. A pleasant surprise, says Williams, is the permit process with the city has been efficient. “That's been a blessing,” says Williams, “because if those don't come through that can slow everything down.”

Another blessing: The school's credit rating in 2010, a triple B-minus, was strong enough to warrant $11.04 million in education bonds issued by Sarasota County to pay for the project. With such a high risk, independent charter schools rarely qualify for bonds financing, says Richard Moreno, an executive with Building Hope, a national organization that supports charter schools.

“Very few independent schools can pull off a project like this,” says Moreno, who consulted with SSA+S through a Florida-based affiliate of Building Hope. “It's very impressive. The school has done an amazing turnaround.”

While the bonds made the project possible, the school's commitment to frugality played a prominent role in the early going. Teacher salaries, for instance, make up 60% of the schools operating budget, says Highland, a figure at least 20% lower than most public schools.

Plus, most of the teachers hold dual roles and are cross-trained in several areas, just like cash-strapped businesses have been doing for years.

Big dreams
That “run it like a business” approach is apropos because several board members and administrators consider Sarasota businessman and philanthropist Harvey Vengroff an unsung hero of SSA+S.

Vengroff, who built a billion-dollar global commercial debt collection firm based in Sarasota, is a past winner of the Business Review's Entrepreneur of the Year award. He loaned the school $900,000 in 2004 so it could buy two buildings from him that it currently occupies.

The school has since repaid the loan to Vengroff, who owns several commercial buildings and hundreds of apartments in the Sarasota-Bradenton region. The school paid $3.4 million for the buildings in total. “Without Harvey's patience and desire for us to succeed,” says Eger, “we never would have made it.”

Now administrators are geared up for their next big moment, with the new building no more than five months away. School officials expect to add about 70 students next year, bringing the total to 750 — the maximum allowed in the school's charter. At least 350 more potential students are on a wait list.

The school plans to hire a few teachers for the new classes. It has received more than 300 resumes for the three or four positions, with applicants coming everywhere from England and Belgium to Canada and Montana.

The energy at the school from the construction project has also invigorated Highland, who retired after 30 years in Florida public schools in 2004. Highland was a school counselor, an assistant principal and a principal. Her last stop was principal of Bay Haven School of Basics Plus, a Sarasota County magnet elementary school.

Highland, an SSA+S board member, taught psychology classes at Argosy University in Sarasota after she retired. She took on the interim principal role when Pepar Anspaugh, the school's former executive director, retired late last year.

Even though she knows it's a temporary gig, Highland still looks forward to the first day of classes next year. “I'm having a blast,” Highland says. “This is a wonderful place.”

Government Watch

The Florida Legislature strengthened charter schools during the 2011 session, a move supported by Gov. Rick Scott.

One bill in particular makes it easier for high-performing charter schools to expand. The bill, passed 31-8 by the Senate April 28, allows those charter schools to sign 15-year agreements with school districts, which is three times longer than most current deals. The bill also makes it easier for high-performing charter schools to open new schools and add students to current schools.

A similar version of the Senate bill weaved its way through the House the week of May 2, according to the News Service of Florida. The House also passed a bill during the session that expands the potential reach of virtual charter schools in Florida.


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