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Charter School With Major Security Features To Open Three Miles From Stoneman Douglas

Jessica Bakeman
Somerset Parkland Academy's incoming principal, Geyler Herrera Castro, gives a presentation during a parent information session at the Jewish synagogue Kol Tikvah in Parkland on Feb. 25.

A new charter school surrounded by an eight-foot non-scalable fence and equipped with bullet-resistant glass is slated to open just a few miles from the site of the nation's deadliest high school shooting.

Somerset Parkland Academy — part of a rapidly expanding international charter-school network affiliated with the politically connected for-profit company Academica — is initially opening registration to students who live within a 2.5-mile radius of the campus. Many of its incoming families will be from the communities traumatized by the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.

The publicly funded, privately run school is currently under construction just less than three miles from Stoneman Douglas, where 17 people were killed during the shooting more than two years ago. The Somerset school was in the works before the massacre, but after, leaders shifted to make security a top priority.

A license tag reader will scan cars entering the school's parking lot. Steel pipes will prevent vehicles from colliding with students on walkways. Bullet-resistant glass will surround the single entrance vestibule. Visitors will be screened as they check in. Surveillance cameras will be monitored in real time, and a uniformed police officer will stand guard.

The school is approved to enroll nearly 1,300 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, although administrators are considering starting as a K-6. The school is likely to attract more students away from Broward County Public Schools, a district that has lost tens of thousands of students over the last 15 years and expects that drop to continue. Recently, parents have cited safety concerns as among the top reasons for leaving the district.

Somerset held an informational session for interested parents on Tuesday night at Congregation Kol Tikvah, a Jewish synagogue in Parkland.

Isabella Teixeira, who attended the event, said the emphasis on security is one reason she hopes to send her daughter to kindergarten at Somerset Parkland next year.

“That, to me, was very positive," she said. "Some parents — I think they got scared: ‘Oh my God, I have to put my kid in an environment like that, like a jail or something.’ But to me, nowadays, we have to think about that.”

She said she's also interested in the school because students will begin learning Spanish in kindergarten. Her family is Brazilian and speaks Portugese as well as English, so she hopes her daughter will be multilingual.

Teixeira's family does not live in the 2.5-mile radius, so she will have to wait until after the initial registration period ends on March 13. She said she's "praying" for a slot.

Another parent, Derrick Baxter, is hoping to transfer his fourth grader from her Broward County public school. He said he's not unhappy with her current school but would prefer a charter school, because they have more flexibility with academics. Charter schools are exempt from most of the state laws and regulations that govern traditional public schools.

He was most interested in Somerset Parkland's planned focus on STEAM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and math.

“I like the technology aspect of it — the STEAM as they call it now, but back then, it was STEM," Baxter said. "So I think that’s a good thing for the kids, because that’s the way the world is going.”

Some parents expressed concerns that the school won't have a nurse on staff. The incoming principal, Geyler Herrera Castro, said medical issues would be handled by school staff or emergency responders.

The school will not offer transportation.

The Somerset Academy network began with its first school in Miramar in 1997 and now operates more than 60 throughout the country and in a territory of Spain, with most in South Florida.

There will be two more parent information sessions next month at Kol Tikvah: 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 10, and 4 p.m. Thursday, March 19.

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
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