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Elementary School Near Liberty City to Split Space With Incoming Charter

Emily Michot
Miami Herald
In this photo from May, third graders at Ponciana Park Elementary School eat lunch with a visiting police officer. The school near Liberty City will soon have another tenant: a privately run charter school.

An elementary school near Liberty City is about to get a new neighbor — not just next door but in the same building.

The national non-profit charter school chain KIPP will open its first location in South Florida next fall, taking over half of the space in the existing school. The Miami-Dade County school board on Wednesday approved a contract and a leasing agreement that will allow KIPP Miami Sunrise Academy to utilize the space for $1 a year. The school expects to serve 200 students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

But some board members are worried putting a traditional public school and a privately run charter school in the same building could lead to inequity.

“We will not allow to have a ‘tale of two cities’ on the same campus,” said Steve Gallon. “If there’s a coat of paint getting slapped on the east side, then a coat of paint is gonna get slapped on the west side.”

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the district was “exigent” during contract negotiations in ensuring any improvements KIPP makes to the school would benefit all students there.

“We will be ever so vigilant about the promise of equity,” Carvalho said during the meeting.

“It would not be fair to little Johnny, Maria or Tyrone to show up at a school one day and feel that if you make a right turn, you have nirvana, if you make a left turn, you have something less than,” he said.

Poinciana Park enrolls about 350 students, most of them black and nearly all of them economically disadvantaged. It jumped from an “F” school in 2016 to an “A” school this year, with many students making significant improvement. Still, only about a quarter of students were proficient in English on state exams.

The lease gives KIPP exclusive use of half of the classrooms, but the two schools will share the cafeteria, the playground and the parking lot. Carvalho said the elementary school at the site now is underutilizing the space, so it won't be a squeeze to share with another school.

The lease will be for one year initially, and then KIPP will have the option to renew for four more years on an annual basis. Although KIPP will pay only $1 a year in rent, it will reimburse the district for its share of operating expenses such utilities and janitorial services.

KIPP’s charter is for an initial five-year period. The organization plans to purchase some operating services from the district.

The charter school will be a “collaborative partnership” between the district and KIPP, Carvalho said. The district won state grant money in 2014 to work with high-performing charter management organizations to better serve students in poor areas. The project targets Liberty City, which was the site of Florida’s first charter school, founded by Jeb Bush in 1996. It closed in 2008.

KIPP's mission is to prepare students for college, and the educational model includes helping students get into college and succeed while there. The organization operates 200 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia, including three schools in Jacksonville with a mixed academic record. Ninety-percent of the network's students are black or Latino and 88 percent are eligible for free or reduced price lunch.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting, the school board approved another charter school contract, for a high school in Doral, and applications for eight more. They include an elementary, middle and high school that will be part of the fast-growing Somerset Academy, Inc., a chain of charters managed by South Miami-based Academica.

Jessica Bakeman is senior editor for news at WLRN, South Florida's NPR member station. Previously, Bakeman served as WLRN's education reporter for four years. Bakeman was awarded the 2020 Journalist of the Year award from the Florida chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.